As the months have ticked by since the start of the pandemic, it has become increasingly apparent that wearing a mask in public is likely the “new norm”, at least for a while. Not only does it help keep us safe from contracting coronavirus (COVID19) , but it also ensures that others are kept safe. All children react differently to seeing people wear masks outside; some adjust quickly, while others, especially the younger ones, feel cautious and afraid. Additionally, many children 2 years and older are often required to wear masks in certain places. So, how do we help our beloved children feel comfortable and safe? How do we help them wear masks for prolonged periods of time?
How to help children feel safe seeing masks?
In order to help children feel safe, we need to understand reasons why they might feel apprehensive. Babies and toddlers rely on facial expressions to feel safe, and because a mask covers most of the face, it is only natural that they feel less secure. Furthermore, some children associate masks with healthcare professionals, and unfortunately, many children correlate doctors and nurses with “poking” (needles, shot injections), so their first thought is one of anxiety.
Luckily, children learn to adjust quickly to change. Below are some helpful tips for how to help your younger ones feel more comfortable with masks:
- Communicate emotions with your eyes
- Make sure to emphasize expressions with your eyes, especially via “smizing” (smiling with your eyes).
- Use more gestures when communicating
- Supplement your words with plentiful representational gestures such as clapping, giving thumbs up, high fives, and more. The addition of positive gestures will help substitute for expressions that are usually evident on the face.
- Let your child play with your mask
- Let your child observe you put on a mask, and even help you put it on, so that he/she is reassured that it is still you behind the mask. It is encouraged to create positive experiences with the mask, such as playing “peek-a-boo”.
- Use simple language to explain what it is
- It is recommended to explain what these mysterious face coverings are, even to our younger ones. Just as you would label a tree (“Look at tree”), you can label masks (“Look at mask”), to increase familiarity and comfort. Although some children might not understand “why” we use masks, most 1;0-2;0 year olds begin to understand, and even ask, “what is?” questions.
How can we help children wear masks?
After getting comfortable seeing masks on everyone, it is now time to figure out how to get children comfortable wearing masks. As stated before, luckily, children adapt quickly to change. By 4;0 years, most children understand the concept of “why”, so after explaining the purpose of wearing masks during this time (to keep eachother safe from COVID19 and other germs), you can expect children to follow their parents’ lead in wearing masks.
Now, the hard part: what about for prolonged periods of time? Below are some helpful tips to help your child feel comfortable wearing masks:
- Let your child choose the mask
- If your child chooses his/her own mask, not only will it increase motivation to wear it, but it will also provide a sense of control. There are a variety of child-friendly masks with inviting patterns, themes, and some of their favorite cartoon characters.
- Wear masks during play time
- With our younger ones you can play with masks during a “peek-a-boo” game, and with our older ones, have your child put on a mask on their stuffed animals and/or dolls. Furthermore, if your child has positive experiences wearing masks during play, the chances are he/she will not be as reluctant to put it on a different day.
- Explain the importance of wearing a mask
- Using developmentally-appropriate language, it is important to explain the importance of wearing a mask to keep everyone healthy. Including a social story, which uses pictures and/or words, can also significantly help children understand new challenges.
- Below please find a video where our specialists at Exceptional Speech Therapy read aloud The Task of the Mask, published by Conscious Discipline, written by Joan MorgEnstern and illustrated by Lucy Williams. Feel free to share and read along with your little ones. https://www.instagram.com/tv/CBBWx6fg6SB/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
How can we help children wear masks, when they have sensory challenges?
Certain textures and fabrics can feel uncomfortable and distracting for children with sensory challenges. Masks not only can feel tight around the nose and the ears, but warm air due to breathing in the mask can also feel bothersome. Not to mention, the sensation of sweat that forms underneath masks can feel intolerable, particularly during these hot summer months. For children with sensory challenges, these sensations can create a feeling of “sensory overload”, which may result in them feeling overwhelmed and upset. Along with the tips listed above, below are additional tips to help a child wear mask when he/she has sensory challenges:
- Decrease anxiety through play
- Studies show that senses enter a state of hyperarousal during an anxious state; a sensation that may not typically bother us, will seem to be the only thing on your mind when you are not relaxed. So, for a child with sensory issues, the sensation of a mask can feel overpowering when they feel anxious. The safe space of play will not only decrease anxiety, but it will also minimize sensory over-responses.
- Build Tolerance
- Slow-graded introduction to uncomfortable texture:
- Let your child first touch the mask and feel the texture of the mask
- Prompt to hold it up to his/her face
- Prompt child to put mask on
- Prompt child to wear for a specific period of time (even a few seconds!)
- Increase periods of time, little by little
- Remain calm and playful
- When you remain calm and playful while wearing masks, not only will it decrease anxiety, but it will create a calming environment. For a child with sensory challenges, it will feel nearly impossible for your child to relax, if they are in a stressful environment.
- Provide praise
- Give specific verbal praise for wearing a mask, no matter how long he/she is able to wear it. Let your child know that he is strong, helpful, and brave for wearing it. It is important to empathize with all children and communicate your understanding that mask-wearing can be uncomfortable for everyone. Make sure you let your child know how proud you are for him/her wearing one and for helping keep everyone safe.
Reach out to Us
We’re all in this together. If you find your child continues to demonstrate resistance wearing masks, please reach out to Exceptional Speech Therapy, as our highly trained occupational therapists can further assist by determining individualized needs to help your child.
Let’s all have fun while we build comfort, confidence, and strength with this “new norm” of mask-wearing. Stay safe, from our family to yours.
Andrea Scola, M.S., CF-SLP
Exceptional Speech Therapy Blog Writer
MS, M. P. (2020, May 06). Helping your child wear a mask with play & sensory strategies. Retrieved from https://greatkidsplace.com/helping-your-child-wear-a-mask-with-play-sensory-strategies/
Teagle, J. L. (Ed.). (2020, July). Coronavirus (COVID-19): Helping Kids Get Used to Masks (for Parents) – Nemours KidsHealth. Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-masks.html