As kids and teens return to school or sports activities and go out in public more often, one of the significant stressors is wearing a mask all day. For some kids, wearing a mask makes them feel reassured while navigating their worlds during a once-in-a-lifetime virus pandemic. But for others, wearing a mask can cause anxiety.
Dr. Alisa Bahl, pediatrics professor at University of Virginia and clinical psychologist at UVA Health, offers parents tips to help reduce mask anxiety. One of the things that is tricky for parents, she said, is helping kids feel more comfortable wearing masks in their every day.
“We need to make sure mask wearing is normalized and children feel comfortable wearing a mask,” said Bahl. “The first thing is to make sure a child likes their mask because then they’re more likely to wear it.”
Make sure your kids like their masks
For younger children, let them choose their own masks. If you can make them together, allow them to decorate it. A favorite character is also a great way to get your children to wear their masks more often, said Bahl. For teens, a favorite sports team might do the trick.
Make sure the mask is comfortable
Make sure that the mask is comfortable for the child, said Bahl, because children at school have to wear them for many hours.
It was quite an adjustment for Casey Ochs’ 17-year-old daughter. A junior at Stuart Hall School and a dancer at Staunton Dance Academy, her daughter told her that wearing a mask was the hardest thing for her.
That’s a long day to have your mask on, said Ochs.
“Going from being home all the time with no agenda, no schedule, to — boom — having a schedule and being back and wearing a mask all day,” said Ochs. “At dance, that’s got to be hard to breathe. And she’s a teenager so she’s worried about her skin, too.”
Ochs wanted to stock masks in her shop that are not only stylish, but will accommodate kids’ needs and help keep them free of bacteria. Many skin care professionals have taken to YouTube to offer ways to keep your skin healthy while wearing a mask.
“It’s interesting to see what’s being invented,” said Ochs. She found an insert to accommodate her daughter’s mask while she’s dancing so she can breathe more comfortably.
There are a variety of styles that are available. Most of the masks have ear loops. Other types have elastic straps that go around the head. For some kids, these fit better because you can adjust the size.
Mask extenders are a great way to make their masks more comfortable, added Bahl. You can attach a headband or hat so the ear loops can attach. There are also creative ways to make sure the mask fits for kids who wear glasses.
“Making sure there’s a nose piece to make sure it fits comfortably and doesn’t fog their glasses,” said Bahl. “Some masks have it sewn into the front. Even if families want to fashion them on their own, they can use a pipe cleaner or twist tie.”
Inserts and brackets can help provide space between the mask and mouth to make breathing easier.
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Setting your kids up for mask success
Before kids have to wear their masks out in public, go through the process of defining those expectations clearly with them.
“Any new behavior involves preparation and practice ahead of time,” said Bahl. “Explain why it’s important to wear a mask in a language that’s developmentally supportive. This should be positive and supportive, rather than using fear to motivate as a strategy.”
Bahl gives some examples of what to say:
- We wear a mask to keep ourselves and other people safe.
- Wearing a mask stops the virus from going from one person to another.
- You’re going to be able to wear a mask safely, even while playing outside.
Julia Dryer and Katie Griffin, juniors at Grace Christian High School, said they wear their masks to protect their teachers and classmates.
“I personally haven’t really minded it that much because I know that when I do it, I am showing that I am loving everyone,” said Dryer. “I’m keeping them safe from any potential germs or viruses that I may have.”
“Most of my teachers are older and I don’t want them to get sick,” said Griffin. “I also protect my classmates because some of them do have health issues that could potentially lead to a worser case if they did get sick.”
Grace Christian High School students talk about wearing masks in school.
Staunton News Leader
Mask role models
This could be adults wearing a mask because children mimic what they do.
Or for younger children, a favorite doll or stuffed animal wearing a mask can be really helpful in learning a new behavior, said Bahl.
“It allows them the opportunity to learn through play and normalizes it,” said Bahl. “Children work through their anxiety through play.”
Using pictures or social stories can also be helpful, she said.
“Because children respond well to seeing others wearing masks. Like healthcare providers and others at the store.”
Strategies to reduce mask anxiety
For some kids, these strategies aren’t enough said Bahl. Mental health and developmental conditions, such as children with autism, anxiety or sensory concerns, can make wearing a mask far more difficult.
Anxiety can lead to difficulty breathing which can make wearing a mask scary. Bahl said kids who struggle may benefit from learning anxiety management strategies:
This can include diaphragmatic breathing, otherwise known as box breathing or four-square breathing.
“This involves having a child exhale completely, inhale and hold their breath, and then exhale again. This helps to slow down their autonomic nervous system,” said Bahl.
Progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness exercises
In addition to exercises you can do at home, apps like Calm or Headspace have exercises that can help anyone manage their anxiety.
“Many of them are excellent and they’re geared towards children and adults of different ages.”
Other mindfulness exercises include squeezing your muscles beginning at your toes. Squeeze it tight, count to five, release. Repeat the exercise as you move up your body, said Jill Emanuele, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
Other activities can be blowing bubbles and taking time to focus on the shapes, coloring or listening to music while noticing an instrument or the voice in a song, said Emanuele.
Take it one step at a time
Some children who are still having difficulty might need to learn to wear their masks in gradual steps.
Bahl offers the following steps:
- This might be touching, holding the mask at first.
- Holding it up against their face.
- Wearing it at home for shorter periods of time.
- Gradually wearing it for longer periods of time.
“Some children might benefit from the use of positive praise or external rewards for wearing the mask until they become accustomed to it and it is part of their routine.”
One of the things that is so key is that everyone is a little uncomfortable with wearing a mask, said Bahl.
Megan Vernon, parents of two boys in Augusta County, said her sons don’t like wearing masks, especially her teenager. Her younger son will do it, but her older son doesn’t like it at all.
“They will wear it if they have to,” said Vernon. “They just do the best they can to make it through it.”
One of the main reasons Vernon’s kids chose virtual vs. the hybrid model offered in Augusta County was having to wear masks. It’s unfortunate, Vernon said, because they miss their friends and doing things, but she didn’t think being in a mask all day was going to work for them.
“It’s okay for adults to acknowledge that a mask might be uncomfortable sometimes,” said Bahl. “That really validates how a child might be feeling.”
But then return to that positive language that it’s important to keep it on, Bahl emphasized.
“If wearing a mask becomes the norm, then it just becomes part of a kid’s routine and something that they do.”
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