Helping Kids Get Used to Seeing and Wearing Masks

By: Parker Huston, PhD & Kara Miller, OTR/L
As seen on Nationwide Children's Hospital's 700 Childrens® Blog

In response to CDC recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many hospitals and businesses are requiring face coverings or masks for anyone over the age of 2 years old. Some children may have difficulty adjusting to seeing others wearing face coverings and wearing them appropriately themselves.

How Can I Talk to My Child About Why People Need to Wear Face Coverings in Public?

For young children, between 2 and 4 years of age (it is not recommended for anyone under 2 to wear a mask), it is usually best to use simple language that they can understand. Be honest and direct and explain that people sometimes wear masks when they are sick or when they are trying to keep from getting sick.

Give your child the opportunity to ask questions, but there is no need to offer extra details. If they are seeing a healthcare professional, remind them that healthcare providers try their best to keep people healthy and the mask helps them do that.

For older school-aged children, try focusing on the positive behavior of “keeping our germs to ourselves.” Let them know that we all have many germs in our body and only a few kinds are the ones that make us feel sick. “When we wear a mask, we are trying to keep our germs to ourselves to keep everyone healthy.”

If they ask about why this is starting now, you can let them know that we are all doing our part to keep germs from spreading.

  • Steer clear of using scary language or frightening images of what might happen if masks are not worn.
  • Give them time to look and ask questions. It isn’t nice to stare, but having them look away and avoid talking to others can contribute to negative associations with masks and increase negative associations with wearing them.
  • Ask if they have any questions, even if you have already talked about it.

Older children may also be able to tell you about things they already do to help stop the spread of germs, such as washing hands, sneezing into their elbow and cleaning frequently touched surfaces - they can add wearing masks to the same list.

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How Can I Get My Child to Wear a Mask in Public?

There is no right way to work on this, but one universal theme is to prepare children ahead of time. The first time they wear a mask should not be when they are walking into a doctor’s office, hospital or store. Practice at home using some playful activities so that they are comfortable before leaving the house. If you have time, work on it for several days before the appointment or trip. Here are some recommendations:

  • Put a mask on a favorite stuffed animal. Act out the trip to the doctor using the stuffed animal and praise the toy for wearing their mask.
  • Gradually have your child wear the mask for a longer and longer period of time. Start with 5 seconds at a time, then 10 seconds and increase from there until they can wear it for 5 or more minutes without taking it off.
  • Parents can practice at home too by wearing a face covering around the house to normalize the look.
  • Take selfies so that kids can see how they look. Use video calling with family and friends while wearing the mask so others can give them positive comments as well. “Wow, you’re doing a great job wearing your mask.” “You look like a superhero!”
  • Print out pictures or find pictures online of their favorite characters wearing masks. If there aren’t any, print out a regular picture and draw a mask together on the character.
  • Allow your child to dress up to match their mask. If they want to be a superhero in a cape or costume for the day, let them.
  • You can offer a small reward for wearing the mask if necessary, such as a treat, screen time or a special book to read. Set an expectation ahead of time for how they can earn the reward. Be sure to practice at home ahead of time.

Featured Experts

Parker Huston, PhD
Psychology

Parker Huston, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist working in the Comprehensive Pediatric Feeding Program at Nationwide Children's Hospital. He primarily provides services through the evaluation clinics, outpatient treatment and intensive feeding track.

Kara Miller, OTR/L
Occupational Therapy

Kara Miller, OTR/L, MOT, has been an outpatient occupational therapist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital since 2009. Kara has a special interest in feeding. She works full time with the Comprehensive Pediatric Feeding Program.

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