Why You Shouldn’t Tell Kids They “Might Get Very Sick” Without Masks

Get them ready before school starts.

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Since April 2020, states across the country have enacted mask mandates in order to help stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). But now, with parents scrambling to figure out what school looks like this fall and what that means for their children, the reality may be that kids will need to wear masks more often than not.

Despite the fact that the CDC has recommended children above the age of two to wear masks in public places for the last few months, parents are now having to weigh their options for the upcoming school year, as some school districts want to bring students back into their buildings for full-time physical learning or a hybrid online and in-person combo, and many of them will require children to wear masks. Per the CDC’s most recent advisement for K-12 schools, “People, including teachers, staff, and students, should consider cloth face coverings in public settings as able when around people who live outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

But whether you’re opting to send your child back to school full-time or part-time, knowing the right way to talk to your kids about wearing masks is important in making the situation seem less scary or strange. That’s why we tapped Sanam Hafeez, M.D., an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University for her expert advice on how to get the conversation going (and keep it going if need be). Now’s the time to make wearing a mask seem normal, cool, and most importantly, fun—especially to little ones. 

How to talk to your kids about face masks:

1. Start early

“The best route to take is to address masks with your child as soon as possible, especially before they have to go back to school if your city is considering opening up schools,” says Dr. Hafeez. Even if you broached the subject earlier in the pandemic, make sure to bring it up again, noting that this is something your child may need to do in order to see his or her friends and teachers at school. 

2. Explain the concept in a way that is age-appropriate

The way that you can go about engaging in a conversation should depend on the child’s age and maturity level. For young children (aged five and under), Dr. Hafeez recommends you start by playing a fun game to make them feel comfortable and put them in a good mood since trying to sit down for a talk with a little one is not likely to be as effective.

Then, when it’s time and you have their attention, Dr. Hafeez says to explain to your child that wearing a mask will keep others from getting their germs. If they don’t know what germs are, use simple terms. “They should know that if everyone wears masks—them included—fewer people will get sick, and the pandemic can end sooner,” she says. To keep things light, you can show them pictures of other children or their favorite superheroes wearing masks or plan an activity that requires using a mask such as going for a walk in their favorite park or getting ice cream.

With older children, you can consciously explain the importance of wearing a mask to stay safe. “School-aged children need to know that this is a new rule they must follow, as they tend to focus on rules,” she says. And for teens, Dr. Hafeez advises appealing to their desire to fit in. According to her, “Teens may feel hesitant about wearing a mask because of how they look, but assure them everyone will be wearing one, too.”

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3. Get them involved in the creative process

When it comes to the mask itself, let them pick out a few that they really like, whether that be ones in their favorite color, with animals, or their favorite Disney character. For older children, however, Dr. Hafeez says that patterns and themed masks may not entice them enough, especially if they find the masks to be bothersome. If you make cloth masks or coverings at home, let your older children help you, whether it be cutting fabric or choosing a fun pattern. Making them feel involved will allow them to have a little bit of control over the situation and possibly get them excited about wearing a mask that they actually want to show off.

4. Practice at home

“If your younger child is nervous about wearing a mask [at school], practice with them at home,” says Dr. Hafeez. She recommends normalizing the situation by introducing it with a sense of play, like pretending to be a patient while your child is a doctor wearing their mask. This might make them feel more comfortable, along with making the idea of wearing a mask more fun. They can also draw some scenarios of people wearing masks as a way to help them visualize the situation. This can give you a good entry point to talking to them and helping them work out how they feel about having to wear one. “[Drawing and playing] are ways for them to process and rehearse, to help them feel more prepared for next time,” Dr. Hafeez says.

Another way to normalize wearing a mask with your child is to take selfies together or video chat family members with masks on so that others can give them positive comments and see how they look. You can even make mini masks for their favorite dolls or stuffed animals so they feel less alone. You also want to model the behavior for your child by wearing a mask with them or around them to show them it’s not something to be scared of.

Don’t forget that your child wants to be like you, so the more you act like wearing a mask isn’t a big deal and is actually something fun and cool, the more they will, too. According to Dr. Hafeez, this can really help ease some of their apprehensions.

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5. Allow them to ask questions

At this point, depending on where you live, some children may be more accustomed to seeing people wearing masks than others. However, keeping the conversation going and allowing your child to look at other people and ask questions about others wearing masks may be helpful for their understanding.

“While it goes against what we’ve told children about how staring isn’t polite, having them look away and avoid talking to others can contribute to negative associations with masks and wearing them,” says Dr. Hafeez. Instead, allow them to direct questions your way about what they’re seeing, and answer them as simply and honestly as possible.

6. Use positive language

There are going to be times where your child may not want to wear a mask. That is both normal and okay. 

Firstly, allow your child to feel upset and frustrated. “It’s normal for children to respond negatively to something they don’t expect, understand, or feel familiar with,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Validate their emotions and normalize them by telling them you feel sad or frustrated too. Remind them that, while their mouths are covered, people can still see their eyes and will be able to recognize them.”

When talking with them, use positive language and reinforce the notion that wearing masks keeps them and others healthy. Steer clear of using scary language that’s overly-medical about the virus or frightening images to explain what might happen if they don’t wear them. For example, saying things like “Watch me wear my mask,” then, “Now you try!” Is more helpful than saying “You have to wear the mask or else you might get very sick.” You can also simply say, “We wear our masks to keep ourselves and other people safe.” It’s a learning curve for sure, but the more you embrace masks, the more your child will, too.

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