How to help kids adjust to wearing face masks in public

Boys Playing With Digital Tablet And Wearing Protective Face Mask
Boys Playing With Digital Tablet And Wearing Protective Face Mask Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mask-wearing in public may be unsettling for many children, but there are some simple tactics to help everyone feel more comfortable.

While not mandatory for kids under 12 in Melbourne, and deemed unsafe for children two and under, some parents may feel safer for their children (aged above two) to wear a face mask in coronavirus hotspot areas. 

And as we have no idea how long coronavirus will be a significant part of our day-to-day life, there's potential mask-wearing, now enforced in Victoria and strongly advised in NSW and parts of Queensland*, will become more commonplace throughout the country.

Kids wearing masks could also help stop the spread as it's become clearer that kids can carry the virus and spread it unknowingly. 

"Kids are much more likely to be asymptotic carriers or presymptomatic carriers, so we do a lot of good when we say, 'Hey, in addition to washing your hands, and please stop licking things, we'd also like you to wear a mask," family physician Dr Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents.

"We really want to slow and stop the spread of this, and we're seeing in data from other countries that kids are actively involved, entirely accidentally, in spreading this."

She said kids might not be happy to wear masks, but parents can help them adjust by making the experience more fun.

"Have them make it and decorate it," she said.

"It was the same thing with bike helmets when we first started requiring kids to wear them.

Advertisement

"Kids are looking for stuff they can control. Help them feel like the hero that they are by wearing that mask."

One dad in the US has shared a simple hack he has been using to help kids get comfortable wearing a mask - and it's gone viral. 

"You're only allowed screen time if you're wearing a mask," he wrote on Facebook - so simple, yet genius. 

Looking at how other countries have handled mask-wearing also helps.

In some places in America where kids are expected to wear masks at school as a precautionary measure, school officials have encouraged parents to help their children build-up 'mask endurance'. 

In the NY Post article, they suggested kids practice wearing masks at home with parents providing incentives like prizes or offering additional screen time while they wear their masks.

It's also recommended putting 'masks' on toys and making the connection between masks and superheroes. Choosing cool materials to make masks out of will also make them more desirable.

And most importantly, explain why it's important to wear masks so they better understand the current health crises.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Top Trenz (@toptrenz) on

Psychotherapist Julie Sweet said it was vital parents talk with their children, in a calm and considered way, about why people are wearing masks.

"Parents are encouraged to elicit an open dialogue (age appropriate) with their children relating to our current climate, especially if children are asking questions," she said.

"It's important whilst parents are truthful, they don't become polarising. So, when explaining to their children about COVID-19 and protective measures, like masks, it's beneficial to neither minimise or catastrophise the issue.

"This information is powerful knowledge for children, and it builds trust and security. Being open with kids also breaks down any internalised fears they may have, and it's replaced with relevant information by the parent."

For some kids, wearing a mask won't be a big deal, but for others it might be scary and feel weird. By making mask-wearing a normal part of daily life and reminding them that mask-wearing is helping other people, it alleviates some of the fear and uncertainty.

"Normalising is imperative," Ms Sweet said.

"Just like brushing their teeth or cleaning up after themselves, parents modelling to their kids that mask-wearing is something we simply do, to not only keep ourselves yet also others safe, it can be more easily integrated into day-to-day functioning without fuss. 

"Making the process fun is always a great strategy as then it's not something to be feared. Some light-hearted options can include made up songs, dance routines, healthy competitions or races between siblings/parents to see who the fastest is at putting masks on and decorating masks."

Encouraging kids to choose or decorate their masks to suit their individual style will help them feel more comfortable wearing masks out and about, particularly teens.

Helping kids to understand that what might be our reality now – wearing masks - might not be necessary in the future.

"The message to convey here is that this is a temporary period in all of our lives - life is fluid, not fixed and therefore it's ever changing," she said.

"Staying present in the here and now is very grounding for kids and anchors them."

* Please note at the time of writing this article masks are only mandatory in Victoria and strongly advised in NSW and parts of Queensland, but as this situation changes daily it's important to check with your local health department.​