It’s not easy to be a parent during a pandemic. As school districts debate whether or when to reopen, families find themselves struggling with the implications of those decisions. One of the most significant is the requirement to wear masks — in school, in public, and other times we come close to people outside our households. It’s hardly surprising that many children resist masks. Wearing one can feel unnatural and uncomfortable, it’s another thing to remember, and it makes it harder to smile or read other people’s facial expressions.
Still, for now, wearing facial coverings is important to protect everyone from the novel coronavirus, so it’s worth considering how to make sure children wear their masks while not adding to an already stressful situation. A few suggestions:
- Check in with yourself first. Children pick up on our emotional tone milliseconds before they process the words we say. So before trying to talk to your child about the pandemic or masks, make sure that you feel calm and ready to maintain a neutral or even positive tone. If you don’t feel calm, then simply wait until you do. Why? When adults feel conflicted or anxious, children subconsciously detect these unspoken signals through the process of neuroception. No matter how carefully you have formulated your explanation of mask wearing, if you deliver it with your nervous system in “threat” state, your child will absorb your anxiety rather than your words. Simply, put, it’s our emotional tone as parents or teachers that conveys cues of safety or danger to children, no matter what we’re talking to them about.
- Keep it simple. Once you feel that you’re at the appropriate energy level, use language that’s suitable for your child’s age and developmental level. Keep the message simple and positive, rather than focusing on the threat of the virus. For example: “As you know, there’s an illness going around and doctors have discovered that if we wear masks it can help the people around us to stay healthy.”
- Follow your child’s lead. After that initial explanation, pause briefly and ask your child if he or she has any questions. Be patient and don’t rush the conversation. Let your child tell you what her concerns are, about the mask, the pandemic, or anything she’s worried about. As my colleagues Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel write, “to name it is to tame it.” If your child enjoys coloring or drawing, sometimes that’s an easier way for them to express concerns or questions than asking you verbally. Answer the questions by giving your child the information that she requests without piling on more than is necessary.
- Engage your child’s creativity. If possible, let children choose their own masks. Perhaps your child can choose the color or the fabric, so the child feels some ownership in the process rather than feeling forced. Many children find it difficult to adjust to the feeling of particular textures on their skin. In some cases, schools can offer such children accommodations, but when that’s not possible, try a variety of fabrics and styles to see which the child can tolerate with the least irritation. If a mask is too physically uncomfortable, it can be a distraction from the learning process. With the wide variety of masks now available, it should be possible to find a comfortable option that works for your child. Consider one of the masks with transparent windows that offer both adults and children the ability to see each other‘s faces. This is a wonderful option since we wear our emotions on our faces.
- Consider your own mask. When you wear a face covering around your child, be mindful that our eyes and our tone of voice provide powerful cues of safety or threat. Be mindful to keep your voice calm, kind and soft—and to look at your child if he or she feels soothed by eye contact.
Again, what’s most important is to mind your own emotional tone in communicating about masks. That will make the difference between a child picking up on the stress of the pandemic versus a child feeling like they are on a hero’s journey with their family, friends and classmates. With luck, one day they’ll look back on this time, weaving this part of their journey into a life story that they can share with pride and a sense of their own resilience.
I share more about resilience building in my book, Beyond Behaviors.