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How can I help my child become comfortable with wearing a mask to school?

As the beginning of the school year approaches it has become apparent that wearing a facemask will be a part of your child’s back to school routine. Many parents who have decided to keep their children home throughout the quarantine or who have opted to not require their child to wear a face mask in public undoubtedly have questions about how to introduce the mask to their child. Even parents of children who have been wearing a mask intermittently have questions about how to successfully encourage their children to wear a mask all day. I have compiled some thoughts and suggestions based on mental health and early childhood development principles. I hope you give some of these suggestions a try and find success! If you need more individualized help, I encourage you to schedule an appointment with myself or another Hope Behavioral Counselor with experience working with children and adolescents.

The most important thing you, as a parent or guardian, can do to help your child adjust to wearing a mask is to have a good attitude about mask wearing.

This should start immediately or as soon as possible. Your attitude toward wearing a mask will be the single most important factor in determining your child’s attitude toward wearing a mask and their willingness to do so. If your child hears you making negative statements about mask wearing to friends or family members, even if you don’t make these statements to your child, it will impact their attitude about the situation. Introduce the mask requirement as a matter of fact and not an opinion. Wearing a mask to school is now as expected as wearing your shoes. It is not an option and not up for discussion.

Your child may have questions and I encourage you to present information appropriate to your child’s age. Children tend to be naturally empathetic to others. Explaining that they are wearing the mask to protect their beloved teacher, Mrs. Smith and the Principal, Mr. Rogers, and all of their friends, will help them feel motivated and part of a community. I suggest also presenting scientific information at their level if they have questions. There is plenty of scientific information about how wearing masks at school and in public spaces will directly impact the health and safety of children and staff members in schools. If you need information to share with your child, I suggest looking at the CDC website or other scientifically based websites. I will share some of these at the bottom of the page.

Modeling is the second most important factor in helping your child adjust to mask wearing.

Children who see their parents wearing a mask are much more likely to wear one willingly and to even ask to wear one. Anyone that your child respects and admires should wear a mask around them when out in public places, and also, increasingly, in private spaces, to help your child become accustomed to wearing a mask for long periods of time. This modeling behavior needs to start now so that your child has time to adapt to the new set of social norms. This is akin to parents gradually moving bedtimes up as school approaches in August each year. Students often need time to adapt to change, and having 4 weeks to adapt is the ideal time period. If you do not already wear a mask in public, you should start now so that your child sees this as normal. Next week begin to wear a mask at home for a short period of time each day while your child is present. Ask them to do the same. Use this as a practice period.

Some smaller children may have trouble understanding what people are saying with a mask over their mouth. You can also practice this behavior. Wear a mask and ask your child to repeat back what you have said. Make it a game. If they get it right say a longer sentence. You can reward your child who gets it right by praising them and telling them good job. Have other people wear a mask and play the game with them too. By doing this you will help younger kids adapt to their teacher and other students wearing a face covering and they will not be surprised on the first day of school.

Try to find or make a mask that they like.

Pick a favorite character or color. Make sure the mask fits right. You may have to try a few different styles and have your child wear it for a few hours to see if it fits comfortably. If they are frequently pulling on their ears or pulling up the mask you may not have the right fit. Just like shoes, masks that fit right are more likely to be worn. Even teens should be picking out their own masks for color, theme, shape, size and design. Children who are involved in picking masks that suit their own personality and style are more likely to wear a mask than children who are not part of that process, no matter their age. Redbubble is a reputable website that puts fan art on all types of merchandise. I did some shopping the other day and found masks with art from every video game I typed in, every animal, every topic I could think to search for. I am not endorsing that website but if you are looking for a specific mask theme it is a good place to start.

Take a firm stand on mask wearing.

As with all parenting decisions, children can sense when you are not 100% convinced of your stance on any topic and will react to that feeling that you are unsure. This becomes more of a problem the older your child becomes. If they sense that you may change your mind or “no” doesn’t really mean “no” then they will question your decisions. Make mask wearing a no discussion topic. If they believe you can be swayed because your decision doesn’t appear to be firm, then they will try to sway your decision through discussion. Present masks as a rule that will not change unless the school or the world changes and you will not be challenged by your student as much about the decision.

What do I do if my child has sensory issues or other mental health issues that will make this process more difficult?

All of the above suggestions especially apply to you if you are a parent of a more “difficult” or “challenging” child. Your attitude and your insistence that this mask wearing business is going to happen will impact your success with your resistant child more than any other factor. Children with challenging behavior tend to master finding the weaknesses in parents’ resolve and exploit that weakness. They are more intuitive about your ambivalence or uncertainty about a topic and are good at using that to get their needs met. This is not to say they are mean or bad. It is a natural process to look for ways to get your needs met if others are not cooperating with what you want. We all look for loopholes to not do things we do not want to do. As a parent you need to close those loopholes.

Classic behavioral approaches are the most effective way to change someone’s behavior. Here is an example of one way to introduce mask wearing using this approach:

1. Introduce the mask as a required part of attending school or leaving the house. Explain the reason we wear masks in an age appropriate, non-frightening way. See materials below.

2. Purchase or make a mask that the child chooses themselves (see paragraph above).

3. If the child is resistant, make sure they know that you will not be giving in or giving up on this topic. Do not say things like, “If you don’t like it we will see if we can get around the rule”

4. Move slowly (which is why it is important to start now). Make the initial mask wearing session short and fun. Go someplace your child has been wanting to go and require the mask while there. A 30 min. activity is ideal. Take your child’s friend who is not resistant to wearing masks as a model (peer pressure can be positive). You and everyone in the family also model mask wearing.

5. Reward your child for being successful. It does not have to be a physical reward. A warm “Good job” or “I’m proud of you” can be the reward. Other reward ideas include running in the sprinkler, 30 minutes of screen time, etc.

6. Gradually extend these periods of mask wearing and rewards.

7. If your child has anxiety about going places, start the procedure at home.

8. Make mask wearing a game for young children or severely delayed children.

9. Ask for help from your school, mental health professionals, etc. If your child has an IEP and has OT/PT services, ask them for help. This would indicate that your child has significant impairment already and might have some special needs that they can help you with.

10. Never lose your temper about the mask. If you are getting frustrated take a break. Don’t threaten or make the mask a negative topic that your child resists because he/she knows it will turn into an unpleasant interaction. If you are getting to this point get help from a professional.

11. Remember, all children have periods of trying to see if the rules bend. They might refuse to put on their shoes to go to the store or refuse to wear a jacket when it is snowing. Use the same techniques you use in those circumstances in this new circumstance. Do not negotiate rules that are firm. Do not lose your temper when they lose their temper. In order to go someplace currently, a mask is a requirement, just like shoes and a coat are a requirement.

12. Give choices when possible. For example, “Would you like to wear Superman or Spiderman today?”, or “Would you like to put it on now or when we get to the door?” Giving children choices makes them feel in control and powerful although the outcome is the same.

13. Empathize with your child. You can say things like, “I wish I didn’t have to wear a mask today. It is really hot out. I am looking forward to this pandemic being over so we don’t have to do this anymore. Until then, let’s put our masks on together.” Often kids act out when they don’t feel understood. Letting them know that you understand why they don’t want to do something is usually enough to stop the resistance.

If you try these suggestions and find yourself still arguing with your child every day or feeling frustrated, then it might be time to seek help from a professional that knows about your child’s particular mental health or sensory problems. Counselors can help with any behavior changes your child needs to make and this includes mask wearing. There is also a great deal of information available to help educate you on whatever your child’s mental health differences might be. I will include some at the end of this article.

Change is difficult for everyone. Adults and children are all trying to adapt to a new and confusing set of rules that change daily and sometimes hourly. Since I began this article, the governor has required mask wearing in public spaces. Your children are looking to you as an example of how to cope with these changes in our world. They trust you to show them how to behave, how to be safe and how to react to change. This trust will help you in the process of introducing mask wearing just as it helped you teach them to ride a bike and brush their teeth. Children are resilient and they will learn to wear a mask with your help.

Written by:

Karen Longanbach, MA, LPCC-S

Karen practices as a counselor at Hope Behavioral Health. She serves in our N. Canton office and is also school-based in both the Minerva and Northwest Public School Systems. Karen specializes in counseling for youth and adolescents, behavior management, ADHD, Autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Anxiety/Panic, Depression as well as a variety of other mental health and adjustment issues. Looking to get more information or schedule an appointment with Karen? Please fill out a patient information form on our website and request her under therapist preferences.

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