As the summer days grow warmer and children are exercising their freedom to explore and play, parents may be struggling to encourage their children to comply with guidance for wearing face masks in an effort to continue slowing the spread of COVID-19.
If that’s you, don’t worry. As a Certified Child Life Specialist, I am familiar with the daily work of helping children cope with challenges in a way that makes hard work feel more like fun!
Here are some helpful tips to motivate kids of all ages to participate in physical distancing and mask wearing.
Babies and toddlers
Although it is not recommended for children under the age of two to wear a mask, these children can become confused by masked loved ones around them. Babies who have yet to develop object permanence (the concept that if an object is out of sight, it no longer exists/has disappeared) can become easily disoriented by familiar adults appearing unfamiliar when wearing masks.
Toddlers may also experience stranger anxiety and can be increasingly distressed by parents and others around them covering their face.
As a parent or guardian, do your best to remember all the other ways to show reassurance to your child besides smiling, such as hugging or singing. Try including masks in your play; try peek-a-boo with your baby, or engage your child in an imaginary play scenario in an effort to normalize masks in a calm, familiar environment.
Not only do children learn through play, but play can also help you identify any potential misconceptions your child may have about masks, COVID-19 and any other worries your child may demonstrate through their play.
Pre-school aged children
Pre-school aged children might misunderstand the directive to wear a mask as a form of punishment for something they have done wrong.
Remember that play is the language of children — use it to communicate! “Teddy bear is not in trouble. Teddy bear is keeping his friends safe by washing his hands and keeping the mask over his mouth!”
School-age children are increasingly capable of abstract thought and will likely be able to understand the importance of wearing a mask to protect themselves and others if the concept is explained to them in simple, concrete terms.
For example, you could say: “Doctors tell us that wearing by wearing a mask, a person keeps their germs to themselves. We wear a mask to protect others from germs we might not know we have, so we can keep people around us safe. When you see others wearing a mask, know that they are keeping you safe from their own germs!”
School age children might enjoy decorating their own mask with favorite colors and characters using art materials, which gives them a sense of control during this time.
Children at this age also enjoy games with rules to follow. Perhaps your family could make a group game out of maintaining physical distancing in public places. Maybe the game includes points for staying 6 feet apart and/or sticker charts for increased incentive.
Teenagers value independence and seeking their own sense of identity. Although wearing a mask is not a choice, perhaps give your teenage child the freedom to choose or purchase their own mask(s) to promote self-expression and turn it into a fashion statement.
These times of uncertainty are an excellent opportunity to include your teenager in thoughtful discussions related to the importance of working together as a community to help one another. Try to empower your teenage child to discover their own role during the pandemic in an effort to encourage a sense of autonomy and responsibility.
Lastly, as the parent or guardian, do your best to lead by example: wear your own mask, wash your hands and follow the guidelines given to you by local authorities.
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About the author
Ally McLaughlin, CCLS, is a child life specialist on staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center.