The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently put out recommendations that the time has come to unmask. But just receiving a notice that it’s time doesn’t mean our children may be comfortable with this transition. Transitions are challenging in all areas of life, especially when they are out of our control, which can present many anxieties and concerns. Masks have become a part of life, providing many important functions that should be considered as you and your family adjust to change.
Habit: Masking has become a habit. Whether we liked it or not, we have been wearing masks for close to two years. That’s a lot of time to form a habitual behavior and adopt rituals around masking. Asking a child to remove an article of clothing that has become as common as socks or a shirt may be jarring for some.
Security: Masking has supplied a sense of security to everyone worldwide of all ages and backgrounds to protect our loved ones and others from spreading the virus. It has served as a physical and social boundary in a very unpredictable and scary period of time. Like a baby to her binky, the mask has psychologically and literally protected us from one another.
Politics: For some, wearing or not wearing a mask has become a political and social statement. As with any political or social statement, there is emotion attached and has left some communities feeling divided. When strong emotion or divide is experienced, it carries weight and intensifies the experience. Children may not have been attuned with this divide, but they certainly can hear and feel the noise and emotion of it all.
Psychological Protection: Masking can mask deeper psychological struggles. Wearing a mask may provide a layer of protection for those who experience social anxiety or body image struggles. Masking has provided a barrier to connection and full expression, so unmasking can trigger strong emotional and psychological reactions for some children that are experiencing deeper issues that the mask has “masked”.
Trauma: For those children who have experienced loss and/or illness, masking can be interpreted as life or death. The mask is a symbol of the tragedy we have experienced as a global society and letting that go is more psychologically profound than just taking a mask off and getting on with your day. It is wrapped up into the trauma, and trauma doesn’t just end when the mask comes off.
Cultural Implications: Worldwide masks were mandated. Everyone felt they were a part of the big picture of creating a safer tomorrow. For many cultural identities, face covering is a part of their everyday routine. Historically these communities have faced much discrimination because of it. It is important for everyone to understand that the mask has created trauma for many communities of color and the act of taking on and off a mask can run much deeper than just the act itself. Some children may continue to wear masks, while some may not for various cultural, ethical, and safety reasons.
Neurodiversity Implications: For those children who are neurodiverse, the past two years have created even more confusion and inconsistency with regard to social norms, interpersonal relations and self-awareness. This might make it even more difficult to work through the emotions related to masking and unmasking.
These causes of anxiety are just the tip of the iceberg. De-masking, for some children, is creating profound emotional experiences. Masking or unmasking is not just an action. It’s deeply intertwined with the profound human experience that we have battled through together over the past two years.
It’s not just a light switch that turns on and off. It’s a process. With that process, we have an opportunity to help our children work through whatever they may be experiencing as they go through the process of learning to live without a mask.
Here are some suggestions to help support your children through this process if they are struggling or if they witness another child struggling:
- Empathize and acknowledge your child’s feelings. This is the most important thing you can do. Try not to minimize what they are feeling or what they are expressing. Listen to them and hear what they are saying rather than try to convince them to feel a different way.
- Be mindful of your words. If your child opens up to you, use words that open up the lines of communication versus unintentionally shutting them down. For example, if your child expresses worry over de-masking, instead of saying, “It will be okay, don’t worry” try saying something like, “Wow, it sounds like you are really worried about this. I’m sorry you are feeling this way. I want to help you through this. Let’s talk about it some more and see what we can do together to help.”
- Create a family contract. Creating psychological safety in the household is imperative. Opening up the lines of communication to allow them to have their space to process and talk is critical. Deciding, as a family, how you are going to approach masking and unmasking will help your child feel supported. When the whole family works together to come up with a plan of action, children will feel like they aren’t alone with their emotions. An example of this may be deciding to mask as a family in public places but de-masking when close friends come over for the first month, then moving to another stage of de-masking together. Remember, this is just CDC guidance, you ultimately make the decisions that are best for your family.
- Support and model with patience. It may take a child awhile to get comfortable with unmasking. Give them the space and time to disengage from the mask. Perhaps start with unmasking in certain settings (e.g., playing with a small group of friends, playing outside) and working up to being unmasked for longer periods of time.
- Mind your own emotions. Children see, hear and feel what we see, hear and feel. They are very perceptive. If you are feeling anxious about unmasking, it’s important to be open about that and contribute to the family plan of what’s good for your family and on what timeline. Just because the CDC has recommended a policy of unmasking on a certain date doesn’t mean that you and your family have to do so. Work on your own timeline, not everyone else’s timeline.
- The mask may mean more than safety for a child. For many children, the mask has helped with social anxiety, social connection struggles, and body image issues. Sometimes the desire to hold onto the mask is not just about physical safety, it’s about psychological security. Understanding the root of the anxiety is very important so you can help your child work through the true issue at hand. It’s equally important to know when it’s time to get professional help.
- Mask Practice. It is vital that adults help children understand that the need for masks may come back, just like sandals come back in spring and summer and are then put away in the winter. For younger children, occasionally having “family mask practice” can help them remember the feeling of a mask and know that it may be something that they wear again.
- Kindness and Compassion. Perhaps the most important thing we can impart to our children is being kind, compassionate and understanding of other children that may be struggling. If your child is totally fine with de-masking, that is wonderful. Help them understand the importance of being an ally to those that may be having more trouble.
- Professional Help. If your child’s anxiety is impacting their day-to-day functioning, consider making an appointment with a therapist.
Whatever your child is experiencing – it is their experience. As adults, we must model patience, empathy and support as they work through whatever emotions they are experiencing. And the same rules apply if you are struggling as an adult. There is no shame in the anxiety or discomfort one may be feeling as we transition into this stage of the pandemic.
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