How We Can Help Children Who May Be Afraid of Masks
In order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, we have made several life-impacting changes. Most Americans are staying at home aside from going out for essentials and emergencies. Schools have closed and shifted to online versions. Many employees are working from home. People are encouraged to maintain six feet between each other for social distancing.
Additionally, the CDC has recently advised “the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow thespread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.”
While the use of face masks in public settings may be considered a painless safety measure forsome, for others the masks may impart fear. Seeing people wearing masks in public may instill a variety of emotions in young children including fear, apprehension, sadness, or discomfort. Very young children may not be able to recognize who is wearing the mask, making a friend or neighbor appear as a stranger. The masks may lead to fear of infection and a reminder of the frightening times in which we are now living through. Even a mask made from pretty or innocuous fabric (even a Halloween or superhero costume) can be construed as scary to a young child.
As adults, we are able to recognize people even while they wear a mask. This ability to recognize is a skill that is much weaker in children. According to The New York Times, this ability begins to develop around the age of 6 but does not reach adult levels of recognition until closer to the age of fourteen. With some facial features obscured by a mask, children may notbe able to recognize faces that are normally familiar.
Very young children may have stronger reactions. Consider how a baby or toddler reacts to agame of peekaboo. When your face is covered, they think you are gone. When a toddler sees aperson dressed as a superhero or movie character, they think it is the superhero or movie character. When the appearance of a person changes, they may think the person has changed.
We, as parents, can help quell the fear in our children caused by the use of these protective face masks. One way to do that is by explaining to children that they may see people in public wearing masks as a way of protecting us and others. Explain that it is a way to help keep that person safe as well as other people like a superhero does.
As with phobias, repeated exposure may help reduce the fear. You can let your child see you wearing a mask at home. Put in on and take it off a few times, letting your child see you so they can understand that it is still you under the mask. It may also help to let your child put on a mask and see themselves in a mirror. Let your little one take the mask off and see that he is still the same underneath. If you have the materials, let your child pick out the fabric of his choice to make a mask. Let him wear it around the house for fun, putting it on and taking it off as he pleases.
Lastly, engage with your child by talking about the masks. With the mask on, you can play a game of trying to guess each other’s feelings based on the facial expressions you can see with the mask on. This may help them to see that those wearing a mask are not always mean or scary. We can often recognize a smile by someone’s eyes. Encourage children to ask questions. Praise them for their curiosity and remind them to come back to ask any more questions they need to help them feel comfortable in these ever-changing times.
These experiences may be more difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD),attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and those with anxiety. While her office is closed to in-person appointments, Dr. Kothari, MD, a Boca Raton-based child and adolescent psychiatrist, is able to schedule virtual appointments. Dr. Priti Kothari’s office can be reached by calling (561) 483-0844. For more information on autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or anxiety in children, visit www.childpsychiatristflorida.com.