How to talk to kids about face masks and tips to get them used to wearing one

May 28, 2020

In combination with hand-washing and social distancing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone over the age of 2 years old — sick or healthy — wear a mask when in public to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. But for many parents and caregivers, actually getting their kids to follow that recommendation can be tricky, especially for young children. 

If you’re struggling to get your child to wear a mask, try using age-appropriate messages, involve them in the creative and decision-making processes and — when in doubt — make it fun.

First, are face masks safe for kids to wear?

The short answer, according to experts: Yes, with some caveats. 

Kids under 2, those who have difficulty breathing and those who aren’t able to take their mask off by themselves (ex. because they’re asleep) shouldn’t wear one because there’s a risk they could suffocate, says Dr. Hela Barhoush, a pediatrician in Secaucus, New Jersey. Likewise, masks shouldn’t be used if a child has a developmental delay, has trouble breathing (such as through vigorous exercise), has serious sensory processing disorders or anxiety around face coverings or is more likely to touch their face repeatedly while wearing it, effectively increasing their chances of getting infected.  

For everyone else, wearing a mask shouldn’t pose a health risk — but it can lower the likelihood someone passes germs on to others. 

When should children wear face masks? 

Coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets — those little bits of spit or snot that fly out of your nose and mouth when you cough, sing or talk loudly — and people are more likely to breathe in those infected droplets when they’re physically close to one other. That’s why it’s especially important to wear masks when you’re indoors or unable to stay six feet away from others, says Barhoush. 

If possible, kids should wear masks in places like: 

  • Grocery stores.

  • Pharmacies.

  • Church services. 

  • Doctor’s offices or the dentist. 

  • Parks or playgrounds where kids are playing or sharing objects or walking or riding bikes within six feet of each other.

  • Any other situation (inside or outside) where social distancing isn’t always possible. 

If your child is out for a walk with the family or playing in their own backyard and won’t be around anyone outside their household, then masks likely aren’t necessary, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.   

How to talk to kids about face masks

Explaining why and when we should cover our face is an important step to get kids to wear masks — and it’s more effective when you use age-appropriate messages. What you say and how you say it will depend on the age and maturity level of your child, but here are some general guidelines.  

  • Preschoolers: Keep the conversation simple and concrete, says Dr. Florencia Segura, a pediatrician at Einstein Pediatrics in Vienna, Virginia. She recommends saying: “We are washing our hands, wearing masks and not getting too close to others so that we can keep the germs away.” 

  • Grade-schoolers: “For grade-school- and middle-school-aged kids, you might want to use a more visual medium,” says Dr. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and founder of Worry Proof Consulting in Los Angeles. For example, you could show them videos of how respiratory droplets leave the mouth and spread through the air to demonstrate how masks protect people. 

  • High schoolers: For older kids and teens, Segura says parents and caregivers can be a little more direct and detailed, saying, for example, “People can spread the virus without feeling sick. Wearing a mask helps ensure we don’t spread the virus to other people who could get seriously sick or die from it.” And if teens want to learn more, tell them where they can find more information. “Their cognitive development is more advanced, and they are very internet savvy, so directing them to reputable resources like the CDC is essential,” Segura says. 

Tips for helping kids wear masks when they don’t want to

Some children won’t want to wear a mask at first. When that happens, giving them a chance to practice at home, letting them pick out or decorate their own masks and making mask-wearing fun can all help encourage them to wear a mask when the time comes. 

Model the behavior

Be consistent, and incorporate wearing a mask into your family’s routine. Seeing other people wearing masks can help make it seem less scary or strange, especially for young children. In addition to wearing a mask yourself, you could try putting a face covering on your child’s favorite stuffed animal or showing them pictures of other kids their age wearing them. 

Practice wearing masks properly at home

Younger children might need a little practice wearing a mask before they feel comfortable wearing them outside the home.  

“Let them play with the mask at home,” says Dr. Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician in Cincinnati. Give them a chance to master how to wear the mask properly — completely covering the nose and mouth — without fiddling with it, as well as taking the mask on and off correctly (by the loops or ties) and washing your hands before and after handling the covering. 

Involve them in the creative process 

Kids and teens might be more likely to wear the mask if they help choose or make the design,  Barhoush says. For younger children, let them decorate their masks with fabric paint or markers, or choose designs they like. Teens worried about being stylish might be more likely to wear a mask if they get to pick the pattern or make the mask themselves.

Appeal to their values and interests 

Try to tie wearing a mask to things your child enjoys or thinks of as important. Many young children, for example, love superheroes and being big helpers, so play up the similarities. 

“I tell [my kids] that every time they wear their masks they are saving someone's life [just like superheroes],” says stay-at-home dad Eugene Romberg in Fremont, California. “The same goes for when they wash their hands and practice social distancing.”

With pre-teens and older kids, however, you might want to appeal to their sense of social responsibility, Natterson says. “Remind them that even though kids their age typically don’t get seriously ill from coronavirus, they can certainly pass the infection unknowingly to others in higher-risk groups.” 

Use shared decision-making 

Older kids and teens might be resistant to wearing masks because they feel like they don’t need them or that they’re invincible. It’s not that they’re selfish, Fish says. The parts of the brain involved in higher level reasoning have not developed fully for them yet. 

If that’s the case for your teen, they might be more willing to wear a mask if you involve them in the decision-making process by asking them questions like, “Do you agree it’s important to help other people not get sick?” or “When do you think you should wear a mask to protect other people?” 

Make it fun

Kids being kids, they might be more likely to wear a mask if they think it’s cool. Find ways to make it a game, Fish says. Race to see who can put on their mask (correctly) the fastest or go the longest without touching it. And for young children, you can’t go wrong with playing make-believe.  

Romberg likes to encourage his kids to pretend to be superheroes when they wear their masks, noting, “Whenever we go outside, they have to wear those masks in order to protect their secret identities.” 

What to do when mask-wearing doesn’t go 100% 

Keep in mind that wearing a mask is an important strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but it’s also one of several mitigation techniques. 

“There are certain children [for whom] wearing a mask is just not going to be possible, and that’s OK,” Baldwin says. Rather than force the issue and cause unnecessary stress or anxiety for both kids and parents, she recommends focusing instead on other prevention strategies like social distancing and hand-washing. 

Do what you can to encourage them, but in the end, getting kids to wear masks even some of the time while out in public can be helpful, Fish says.

“Any mask-wearing is better than no mask-wearing at all,” he says.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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