If there’s one unwavering fact in the middle of the chaos surrounding COVID-19, it’s this: wearing masks helps to prevent the spread of the virus. In addition to hand washing and social distancing, wearing a mask is the only other thing that can help protect yourself as well as others from this highly contagious virus. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control have issued in their guidance that all students and staff should wear masks when they return to school. So we know that a mask can help keep a child safe physically. But what about emotionally? Apparently, children wearing face masks experience psychological effects as well, according to experts.
Now, the point of this story is not to discourage the use of masks. Far, far from it. It is simply to alert parents to the potential psychological and emotional reactions that can occur when children (particularly elementary school-aged ones) have to wear a mask for the entire school day. “Depending on your child’s personality type, masks can affect them in different ways,” says Dr. Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist. “I think this is a new paradigm and we will see lots of different reactions from the kids regarding their acceptance of the masks.”
What can make mask wearing easy (or challenging) for your child ultimately comes from your own feelings on the subject. “Definitely the way parents think of masks will affect the kids’ idea of them,” says Dr. Whatley. “The older kids will likely find it easier to keep masks on. For younger kids, it will be like expecting them to keep up with their hats and wear them. Sometimes they just forget or lose them.”
But even if you try to normalize the idea of wearing masks, your kid still might feel scared wearing one. “The psychological aspect of masks we need to be most worried about for children is that they internalize the idea that the world outside, and the people living in it, are inherently dangerous,” says Dr. Aaron Weiner, PhD, a board-certified and licensed clinical psychologist. “This perspective can lead to long-lasting anxiety disorders, and difficulty with their ability to function socially after guidelines are relaxed.”
For children of all ages, they might find that wearing a mask feels isolating, according to Dr. Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and best-selling author. “It can make people feel as if their voice is muted, or that they are not allowed to speak,” says Dr. Lieberman. “So, kids may especially feel like you don’t want them to ask you questions about Coronavirus or to tell you how upset the masks make them feel.” After all, children wearing face masks isn’t something that they’re used to, so it’s going to take time for them to adapt.
And then, there’s the question of how kids will socialize with masks on. When everyone is wearing a mask (and voices might get muffled), how can children read facial cues in order to form new friendships? “Some children have told me that they don’t like not seeing people’s smiles especially and it makes them feel “weird’ and alone even when with people,” says Dr. Elena Lister, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist on the faculty at Columbia and Cornell Medical Center. “It can make forming new friendships harder because of that but will not have a huge impact on ongoing relationships.”
That said, some kids might take comfort in wearing face masks. “There will be the child who feels much more secure because of wearing the masks, and this will help calm COVID concerns and anxieties so they are free to learn,” says Dr. Whatley. And wearing a mask can be a learning opportunity for kids to understand that doing so actually helps (and not hurts) people. “Helping children keep a balanced view of the situation is essential,” says Dr. Weiner. “For example, you could say something like: ‘Wearing a mask right now is very important for your health, just like washing your hands after using the bathroom. It’s good hygiene, and it’s also considerate to everyone else. We don’t want anyone to get sick!’” By helping your child view mask-wearing as something considerate, and an activity that we do to keep everyone safe, it reinforces the good that comes from wearing a mask. “Frame mask-wearing as a pro-social activity where we all take care of each other, rather than focusing on the element of mask-wearing that draws attention to sickness, disease, and death,” says Dr. Weiner.
That’s why parents should start sooner (rather than later) in instructing their children about the benefits of wearing masks. That way, they’ll be ready for them once school starts. “Some children may not like the feeling of the mask on their face, or fiddle with the mask during the day (which lowers its protective value to them),” says Dr. Weiner. “Model how to wear a mask appropriately, as well as how to take the mask off from your ears without touching your face.” By doing this for even 15-20 minutes daily to start, your child can acclimate to the idea of masks, and you can come up with solutions if your child is uncomfortable.
And some kids actually report feeling comforted by the idea of wearing masks in school. “I hear from my young patients, parents, and school personnel that the masks create a feeling of safety that is reassuring to them,” says Dr. Lister. “They feel that they and their families won’t get sick, because a lot of children are highly anxious about that.” In that way, kids can view like donning a mask makes them a medical superhero helping others.
Still, it might take some time for your child to adjust to the idea of wearing a mask all day at school, and that’s okay. Children wearing face masks isn’t something that has been a part of our collective culture until now. The most important thing is to be positive, give your child the information that they need, and be supportive as they adapt to this new normal. That way, your child can enjoy being in school—safely.