When Nicholas, 35, sent his son to third grade earlier this month, he did a lot of the usual getting prepared — buying back-to-school supplies, talking to his son about the friends and teachers he was excited to see again.
Then they had the mask talk.
Nicholas, who lives in Texas and asked to be identified by his first name only because of how politicized masking has become in his area, expects his son to wear a mask in the classroom every day, but there is no mask mandate in their local school district. And he knows that many of his son’s classmates are not wearing masks, even as COVID-19 cases around them surge.
“We’ve just tried to have very frank discussions with him,” said Nicholas. “We’re telling him we’re doing everything we can to keep him and other kids safe.”
Countless parents around the country — particularly in coronavirus hotspots — are having similar conversations as they send their children back into the classroom, knowing they’ll be one of a handful of kids, if not the only one, wearing a mask.
So HuffPost Parents spoke to several children’s mental health experts about how parents can help their kiddos navigate that situation as they make their way through yet another unprecedented school year.
1. Start by simply acknowledging that this might be difficult for them and you.
“The polarization around masks, and other strategies for reducing transmission, has been so challenging and confusing for parents and kids,” said child psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Little Otter, a teletherapy platform.
Egger believes it is critical to just pause and recognize that there may well be “negative social pressure” if you happen to live in an area where your child is going to be in the minority wearing a mask every day — and that social pressure extends to parents as well.
Parents and children might both feel anxious about their risk of catching COVID in the classroom, particularly given how contagious the delta variant is. And parents and children might both feel self-conscious about standing out. Make room for those feelings as they come up.
2. Explain your reasons clearly and focus on the positive.
Before you send your child to school, make sure they have a clear understanding of why your family has decided to wear masks — and keep it developmentally appropriate. With younger kids, for example, that means only using words they already understand, rather than loading them up with new concepts. (If it’s been a while since you’ve sat down to talk with your child about COVID-19 and how your family is approaching it, this guide from early in the pandemic has some helpful tips.)
“It’s important to be matter-of-fact,” said Egger, adding that you should refuse to treat mask-wearing like a big deal in your home and among your family. Explain to your kids that putting on a mask is simply something your family does to get ready in the morning, like brushing your teeth or putting on shoes.
“Remember: Even if their concerns seem silly to you, they are meaningful to them.”
Keep it positive. Tell your child things like: “We wear masks to keep each other safe. When we wear masks, the virus can’t pass from person to person,” Egger urged. And don’t disparage families who are making different decisions.
“Parents may model aggressive or harsh judgments of others in conversations with their kids or with each other, for example, ‘Parents who let their children go to school without masks are idiots!’” said Aude Henin, co-director of the Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “This kind of rhetoric is unhelpful and very stressful for kids.”
3. Work out a coping plan ahead of time.
Hopefully, your child won’t encounter any negativity around masking up, but it’s a good idea to prepare for the possibility. “Work out a coping plan that they can use if they feel anxious or embarrassed — for example, take a deep breath and remember that it’s OK to make a different choice,” said Henin. “Go and find a friend who doesn’t care if I wear a mask (or is wearing one too) and spend time with them.”
It is also helpful to talk to your child about what they might say if they find themselves dealing with questions about why they’re wearing a mask or being teased for it.
Their answers don’t need to be particularly complex. Something as simple as “this is the choice that works for me and my family” is a good option, Henin said.
4. Check in regularly.
So many kids are thrilled to finally be back in the classroom full-time this year, but it is a moment of profound transition, and checking in is more important than ever before.
“The most helpful thing that parents can do is to have an honest, non-judgmental conversation with their child about wearing a mask, and to listen to their child’s concerns and answer their questions,” Henin said.
Remember: Even if their concerns seem silly to you, they are meaningful to them, Henin said.
“Simply acknowledging how they’ve rolled with the many obstacles thrown their way — and applauding their efforts to wear a mask — can go a long way in helping children stay positive about this whole ordeal.”
Definitely keep in mind that many more children have been grappling with anxiety and depression during the pandemic and that this is likely to continue to be true. If you have any concerns, talk to your child’s teacher, their pediatrician or a mental health provider.
5. Reward them!
It’s not always easy to be a kid, and it’s certainly not easy to be a kid who has been living through a pandemic for 18 months. Simply acknowledging how they’ve rolled with the many obstacles thrown their way — and applauding their efforts to wear a mask — can go a long way in helping children stay positive about this whole ordeal.
“Reward them for doing it!” Egger said. “Whether it’s a treat, or something you do together.”
This isn’t easy, so “really, really praise your child,” she said.