The world has changed forever and it feels like nothing is constant. Here in Australia we are in the middle of our second wave of Covid-19. It seems that despite lock-down and the social distancing, overall we coped pretty well with the first wave. But the second wave is more difficult to handle. It is as though we were just coming up for breath only to be pushed down under the water again. The scary thing in a second wave is that we know what it was like the first time and the thought of having to go through it again is heartbreaking. But now there are more restrictions and protective factors enforced. Masks are mandatory in hot-spots and recommended in other areas when you are out socially. This can be a scary adjustment for children.
When I work with children to recognise facial expressions, I always say “look at the eyes, eyebrows and mouth”. When we are taking away the mouth we are making reading facial expressions incredibly difficult. The ability to read facial expressions is poorly developed until the age of 6 years. So, for a young child, to effectively remove half of a person’s face from sight means that they may not be able to “read” their face at all. They may even have trouble recognising someone who is normally really familiar to them. As adults when part of someone’s face is covered, we can “fill in the gaps” and work out what their face would be doing. However, this is a skills that is not fully developed until the age of 14 years. It is no wonder that children may feel scared to have people everywhere with masks on. Their comfort and sense of certainty has been taken away.
If you are talking to a child while you are wearing a mask, it is important to be clear and explain yourself. Remind them who you are, this might sound silly if you are a familiar person but, remember you look very different. Help them to recognise your voice or your other features. If you have to give directions, be specific and clear. Let them know what you are doing and what you want from them. By making things clear you are taking away any other assumptions they need to make and relieving anxiety.
We also need to realise that surgical masks are associated with pretty nasty medical procedures. If a child has had to be around someone in a surgical mask before, chances are it wasn’t a fun experience. They may have been in hospital themselves or watched people they love have to be in hospital, it is all very scary. So whenever they see a mask, they could be taken back to the emotion of that time which is very traumatic. We need to explain that people are wearing masks to be kind and to keep people safe. If we don’t explain this they will assume that people with masks are dangerous and scary.
How do we Help Kids adjust to People Wearing Masks?
Talk to them: So often parents worry about the best way to tell their kids something or how they should explain things. But really, your child will direct you, just talk to them. Ask them what they think all the masks are about. Find out what they understand and then you can correct any assumptions or give them any information that they need. You will need to use language that they understand, but be honest. By now most kids know what Covid-19 is and they have some understanding of germs. They have all been taught to cough in their elbow and use hand sanitiser. You can just explain that mask helps stop germs from going from one person to another. It is how we are trying to keep people safe.
Make it fun: We need to take the scary association away from the mask. For young children, play peek-a-boo with the mask, put a mask on their favourite toy or find a picture of their favourite character and draw a mask on it. Have fun with it and bring masks into their play. Play is the best place for kids to learn and process what is happening.
Practice facial expressions: For school aged children, have them try and guess the emotion of the person wearing the mask. Talk about how the eyebrows go up when we are happy, crease in the middle when we are angry and go down at the sides when we are sad. This will help develop their ability to read facial expressions even with the mouth covered. Let them practice in a mirror so they can see what their face looks like with a mask and they can try and connect with what their face looks like underneather the mask and what other people will see.
Make it normal: Eventually, like everything else that has become the new normal, kids will adjust to this too. Wear masks sometimes at home, let them wear them and dress up with them (not recommended for children under 2 years). If you are going to get the cloth masks, let you child choose the fabric and be involved in the process. Giving them some control in a situation that makes us all feel out of control will help reduce some of their anxiety.
Masks have become part of our new normal but we need to consider the impact this is having on children and help them adjust. We need to be aware that not being able to recognise someone or read their facial expressions can be very disconcerting. Children can not understand a covered face like an adult, it is not a matter of just part of their face covered. But we can help them adjust by talking to them at their level, using play to help them process and normalising masks in a safe and fun way.