By Tracey Dowdy
By now, wearing a mask when we leave the house has become second nature for many of us. We know that wearing a mask is important and can help stop the spread of COVID-19 as it protects the vulnerable. And with the U.S. continuing to report record numbers of coronavirus cases, despite the vaccine rollout, we’ll all be wearing masks for the foreseeable future.
While your older children have likely been wearing masks for nearly a year, little ones may be transitioning back to in-person learning and daycares that require one. For some children, this transition is easier than for others. If you’ve ever tried to keep mittens on a toddler or have your preschooler wear a hat for more than 30 seconds, you know what I mean. For children with anxiety, sensory differences, and autism, the challenge can be exponentially greater. They may be particularly sensitive to how the mask feels on their face, head, and ears, and some children may even feel panicked when forced to wear a mask. Some will resist just because “I don’t wanna.”
It may help if you involve the child in the choice of which mask to wear. They may not be interested in a plain blue, disposable mask, but one with Disney characters, superheroes, or a favorite sports team may make them more willing. Let them shop online with you, and choose the style of the mask carefully. Consider over the ears, around the head tie-straps, or even those that attach to a headband with buttons or snaps (check on Etsy). If the mask feels tight, invest in ear savers that put the pressure on the back of the head (like straps for glasses) instead of on the backs of the ears. Having a choice can be empowering and, “It allows them to feel like they have some ownership or control over the process,” says Allison Tappon, a child life specialist with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — herself a mom of two young kids.
Practice wearing the mask around the house, even for a few minutes at a time, so your child gets used to the feeling and experience. Modeling good behavior is a technique we all use with our children in other areas, and mask-wearing is no different. If you can find pictures of people they look up to – older cousins, celebrities, athletes – wearing masks, that may help normalize the experience for your child. Remember, “If you act as though the mask is an annoyance or a source of anxiety, your kid will notice. If instead, you emphasize that it’s a simple thing you can all do to help keep others safe, your kid will very likely adopt a similar attitude,” Tappon says.
As a parent, one of the best places to start is to show your child how you wear your mask. Watch for their reaction and comfort level – are they avoiding looking at you or seem upset? Are they acting out, or do they seem distressed? If so, try redirecting them as you would any other time they’re upset. You could also role-play with dolls or action figures and have them make masks for their toys or talk about how superheroes wear them. Explaining that we wear masks to protect others can make them feel like superheroes too.
If your child is still struggling, try these steps:
- Let them touch and hold the mask and don’t forget to praise them for their efforts. “Don’t underestimate the power of positive reinforcement,” says Dr. James Lewis, a pediatrics professor at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University and author of “Making Sense of ADHD.” Reward them with a little treat, create a star chart, or simply use your words to praise them. Small victories are big victories in these situations.
- Have them touch the mask to their face without putting it on. Make it a game by saying, “Touch your nose with the mask! Now touch your ears! Touch mommy’s nose with your mask!” and so on. Again, the goal is to take any anxiety out of mask-wearing, so keeping things light takes away some of the fear factor.
- Once they’re comfortable with steps one and two, have them put the mask on, even if it’s just for a few moments. Build up to wearing it for more extended periods. You can use a timer to make it more of a challenge-like game. As always, praise and reward positive results and be kind and compassionate if progress is slow.
- At this point, have them practice wearing their mask for more extended periods around the house. Have them wear it while they play with toys, a video game, or watch a movie.
- Remember, they may need breaks, so be mindful of their emotional state and when they’ve had enough. Help them use their words or come up with a hand signal to indicate when they’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
Wearing a mask is hard even for many adults, so it’s no wonder it can be difficult for our children. As the parent, you know what works best for your child, so pick and choose what tips will work for them. If they have special needs, talk to your child’s therapists and healthcare providers for advice on how best to help them adjust.
Licensed psychologists developed these tools at the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.