Can’t get your child to wear a face mask? Here’s what to do
Summer is approaching, and society is reopening in small bursts across the country. That's good news for families that are suffering from cabin fever, but with strict social distancing guidelines, parents of young children are looking for creative ways to help children comply with rules they may not understand—specifically wearing face masks.
It’s hard enough to get some kids to wear a sun hat. No child wants to wear something that covers their nostrils, makes their breathing hot, and pulls at their ears, but it's now a necessity. So, the question is: How in the world do you get a confused, anxious, or headstrong child to keep a face mask on?
“This is the new reality,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, a psychologist specializing in the treatment and prevention of anxiety and stress, the founder of The Children's and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, and the author of numerous books on anxiety. "The really important thing to remember is that everyone is struggling with things that feel completely new to them. Parents feel at a loss because it feels so new and frightening to them as well.”
We don’t really have a template for how to navigate through a pandemic, but Chansky says to approach social distancing and mask-wearing as you would anything else that a child might not want to do. “Acknowledge that there is inherent anxiety in all of this. But, there is a precedence for kids not liking what you ask them to do. This is just one more thing they don’t like that you support them through," says Chansky.
Who needs a mask?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that children under the age of 2 not wear masks due to suffocation and choking hazards. Also, children with cognitive or respiratory impairments should not wear masks. If they do wear a mask, respiration should be monitored with a pulse oximeter when possible.
The AAP recommends masks for of-age children in public places where social distancing might not be possible, like doctor's offices, public transit, and grocery stores. Best practice is to leave kids home from public outings whenever possible.
If your child is struggling with mask-wearing, here are a few tips to help.
1. Hone in on the issue
If your child says that they don’t want to wear the mask because it’s uncomfortable, Los Angeles-based preschool teacher Sarah Juarez recommends you eliminate assumptions about what that discomfort is. “We may assume that they don’t like the way the mask feels, but take away your assumptions about what they feel,” she says.
She recommends that, when they are calm, talk to your child about what doesn’t feel good about the mask. You may find that the discomfort of mask-wearing isn't anywhere near their face. "Maybe they'll point to their chest or stomach and tell you they don't like the way that area of the body feels when they wear a mask," says Juarez, in which case you’ll learn from them that it’s not an itchy or uncomfortable mask, but it’s anxiety. Once you know the issue you can better focus on how to help your child.
“An uncomfortable face mask is one thing, but an anxious child will need to be approached differently,” says Juarez.
2. Talk about safety
Chansky says that how parents frame and present new information to kids is what helps kids decode in their minds whether something is scary or safe. Right now there is an underlying fear in most kids about an invisible sickness that is so serious they can’t leave the house. While an adult may rationalize that a mask can help protect them against this illness, kids' minds can linger on the idea of an invisible bad guy that can hurt them. Chansky says how you frame the information you give to a child is important. “Don’t present it as being about sickness or danger. Leave those words out, if you can,” says Chansky.
Instead she advises that families talk about what is safe and healthy and come at mask-wearing as a means we all take to protect each other. “Talk about what’s safe, not what’s dangerous. Instead of saying, ‘We are trying to protect you,’ emphasize that we are all trying to keep everyone safe and healthy,” she says. Little kids hone in on the negative, so try to make your spin a positive one.
3. Focus on community
Chansky also recommends that you talk about all the important people in a child’s life that they want to protect. You can make it a fun family exercise of community-building and empathy. Sit down together and make a list of everyone they care about and about people in their neighborhood that make their day a happy one: their bus driver, scout leader, mail carrier, a favorite neighbor.
“Have them talk about these people to make it an exercise that cultivates a sense of generosity, which is good for one’s mood. If kids think, ‘There are a lot of people I care about who care about me, and we want to protect each other,’ it puts a different angle on things. When we are in crisis, community-building is so important and this is a way of doing that,” says Chansky. "Focus on wearing the mask to help the community rather than using the mask to isolate yourselves."
Another thing you can do is have kids make cards or decorate masks with markers and give them to people in their community. “By having them make something positive to share, it’s a way of focusing on spreading kindness instead of the virus,” says Chansky.
4. Make it fun
Let kids decide which fabric and design they like when shopping for a face mask. Chansky says you can also let kids personalize their masks by letting them decorate their masks with stickers, beads, or markers. When they put their stamp and personality on it, it can help take the chore out of wearing a mask and transform it into something they are proud to wear.
You can also use pretend-play to help kids practice wearing masks and to help smooth out the mystery and anxiety of wearing one. Have a stuffed animal wear a mask or make masks for favorite toys, and have kids talk about why they are wearing them.
Model masks together in the mirror so kids can look at you wearing yours at the same time they are wearing theirs. Or you can create little games, such as letting them pretend they are ninjas or spies wearing a mask, to help them ease past any sensory issues that may arise.
Juarez also recommends that you pretend you are going on an outing. "Pretend that you are visiting Grandma or that you are walking the dog together. Let them pretend so they can investigate through play how it all works and they can even figure out how you might respond if they take off the mask when they aren't supposed to—it can be an exercise for you, too,” says Juarez.
5. Ease into mask-wearing with a timer
Juarez recommends short outings, marked by a timer, to help kids ease into mask-wearing. Start with as little time as you think they can tolerate and build from there. “Maybe start with a five-minute walk in your neighborhood. Whenever they start to want to pull off the mask, show them the timer and let them know, ‘You only have two minutes left!’ If they can see the goal they are working towards and they can see the end that’s in sight, it can help calm them,” she says. Each time you go out, add an extra minute to the timer until they no longer need the visual check in for when it’s time to pull the mask off.
Chansky says kids may feel anxious about mask-wearing, in part, because when a mask obscures the wearer’s face, it also obscures subtle facial cues that kids rely on to understand people’s emotions and intent. "The apparent lack of visual cues is hard for them, so you can work with them to demystify the cues and show them that they are still there and how to find them," Chansky says.
She recommends parents make a game of practicing a range of facial expressions while wearing a mask. “You can show kids that they can get cues from the eyes and body language,” says Chansky. She recommends doing little practice drills of interactions and helping kids find options of how to express themselves. "You can ask them how they want to express themselves—will it be a hello with a wave or with hands in the shape of a heart in front of you." She says this practice helps kids to absorb the idea of how masks can fit into their everyday life.
She also recommends looking up photos online of other kids wearing masks. Try to find some that look expressive and ask your child if they can figure out how the child in the photo is feeling. “These things can show how expressive eyes and body language can be, and that can help kids feel like they have tools in their toolbox to express themselves, even when half of their face is covered,” says Chansky.
7. Model positive behavior
More than anything, be sure to show yourself wearing masks whenever necessary and show that you see it as a positive way to help your community, as opposed to a tedious requirement being imposed upon you. “The whole idea is that we show them that even though this is different, it isn’t dangerous,” says Chansky. She goes on to say that children use their caregivers as a constant scan for what is okay in life and what’s not. “Something different can feel dangerous,” she says. “We can make them see that it’s just different. It’s something we all are getting used to and it’s so far from something to be scared of—it’s actually really helpful.”
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