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Help Your Child Adjust to Wearing a Face Mask

Wearing a face mask in public spaces may be something that we, as adults, have fast become accustomed to, however we need to acknowledge that it will feel strange and new to children.


Wearing a mask can save a life

To avoid the spread of COVID- 19, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that children wear masks except for children under 2 years of age (Dr. Day-care Learning Centre, 2020). In South Africa wearing a mask is mandatory for access to shopping malls and other public places. This new reality may pose a challenge for parents who have toddlers that don’t understand why their mouths and noses have to be covered, especially if a child is sensitive to wearing masks (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).

In this blog post, we will discuss the challenges children may face with the use of face masks due to their age or developmental stage. We will also provide ways for parents looking to teach their children about the importance of wearing a face mask and tips for how to help them adjust to wearing (and keeping) their masks on.


Why your child may have a hard time with the mask?

We already know that even adults, when wearing a facemask, struggle to avoid touching their face. This may be extra difficult for children as they have poor impulse control (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). Not always the case for the older children who may have more mature sensory systems whereas they can filter out a sensory stimulus that doesn’t change (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).

For example, if a child puts on a cap for the first time, they may be aware of this feeling on their scalp. After a short period however, their sensory systems block this background sensation to allow the brain to take in sensory input of greater importance (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  

Young children with still-developing sensory systems may struggle to block out background sensations, making it extremely difficult for them to adjust to wearing the mask on their faces for a while (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  


Challenges of teaching with a mask

Children are learning to read and make sense of other people’s facial expressions. Discerning facial expression becomes a challenge if a person’s face is partially covered by a mask especially for young children. This can provoke their anxiety levels (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  Even children who are highly sensitive to smell may not be comfortable with the mask against their noses (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). 


Explain why it is important to wear a mask

Talking about current news and health related issues with children is not easy but we believe that not saying anything at all is more detrimental to their safety. Children notice changes and may overhear discussions between adults (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). Informing children may reduce their anxiety levels. Our team would recommend that when parents talk to their children regarding healthy and safety issues, that they consider their child’s level of understanding. 


Age appropriate conversations around COVID 19

For the youngest children, the recommendation is that parents explain how certain germs can make people ill and therefore in an effort to stay safe face masks and face shields need to be used (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). Parents can make this experience joyous by drawing the image of a dog or cat on a plain white face mask at home. Turn it into an opportunity to teach toddlers animal sounds by making sounds that correspond with the animal on the mask. Maybe even sing “Old MacDonald had a farm”. This will teach toddlers about nursery rhymes and also helps to develop their language.

For the older children who understand what COVID 19 is and its impact, parents can explain about  (1) the need to use face masks; (2) the need to regularly sanitise and wash their hands; as well as (3) their responsibility to cough into the elbow as means to prevent the spread of COVID 19 and to avoid becoming ill. Parents can also make it fun by challenging their child to design unique fun character patterns their plain white facemasks. Having said that, it is also important to stress that children will model what their parents do and learn by observing parent’s personal protection safety measures.  

Below are a few tips to encourage your child to put the mask on and to avoid touching their face.


Make sure the mask fits

If a child is given the option to select a face mask, they may be more receptive to wearing it, if it fits them comfortably around their heads or ears (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  The face has multiple touch receptors therefore choosing how the straps are tied or buttoned at the back of the head for comfort is important (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  A snug but comfortable fitting breathable face mask for children who are sensory sensitive is advised (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).  


Keep them busy

Give your child something to play with while they have their mask on. If a young child’s hands are busy with elastic bands, play dough textured paper or a Rubik cube to fidget with, it could help them to avoid touching their faces while wearing masks, especially when parents are running errands. (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). Use extrasensory calming techniques to ground your child while he/she is wearing the mask. Older children can chew gum or enjoy a sweet while wearing the mask to soothe the extrasensory stimulus and avoid taking off the mask (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). However, very lengthy shopping trips should be avoided.


Reward good facemask habits

Initially, parents can reward their child with a visit to the mall if a mask is worn sometimes. This should be done with caution as a child should not only be willing to wear a mask just to get a chance to go to the mall. A child’s receptiveness to wear a mask should be balanced with a child’s need for autonomy as the child adjusts to wearing the mask over time.


It is important to avoid a tug of war with your child about using a mask and rushing the process as it could create confusion for the child about having autonomy about what happens to their bodies (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020). The objective is to help your child to adjust to wearing the mask over periods for example a trip to the shopping mall with their parent for the parent to buy essential items (Bruwer, Tzanos & Toi, 2020).

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