Mask Up: How to Talk to Your Children About COVID-19 Safety
By Louis Melchiorre, MD, Chair, Department of Pediatrics, Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, & Lead Pediatrician, Osborn Family Health Center
Keys and phone? Check. Mask? Check. Keeping six feet away from others at the checkout line? Well, hopefully.
Wearing a mask and social distancing have become the keys to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But how do you tell a child to follow the rules, especially if he or she sees friends—and maybe some adults—not doing so?
We’re constantly learning about the virus. What we do know is the virus spreads through respiratory droplets—someone breathing, coughing, or sneezing. Masks, even cloth ones many of us wear, do a good job trapping them and preventing person-to-person transmission of the virus.
To help your children understand the importance of wearing a mask, I advise parents to:
- Prior to leaving the house, explain to your children in terms they can understand why a mask is important in keeping everyone safe.
- Have an open conversation to find out what’s on their mind. A good way to start may be asking the questions, “What have you heard about the virus?” “What do you know about it?” “What concerns do you have?” You can address their concerns and correct any misinformation.
- Sit in front of the mirror with your children so they can see how to properly wear the mask.
- Have your children practice wearing the mask before heading outside so they become comfortable with it.
- Let you children choose a mask, maybe with a favorite character or design. For many teens and adults, masks have become a way to make a fashion statement. There are lots of options on the internet.
- Wear your mask as well. Kids want to mimic their parents, so if you wear a mask, they will too.
- Remember that children under age 2 shouldn't wear a mask because they may suffocate or have problems breathing.
Teenagers, admittedly, may be harder to convince. Some may not want to follow the rules, and think they are invincible. Be up front and honest with them. Explain why masks are necessary, and how people who don’t wear one are placing themselves and others at risk of contracting the virus. As with younger children, talk about the risks without provoking fear.
Social distancing is another cornerstone of preventing the spread of COVID-19. While you may want to keep them isolated inside, children need to go outside, exercise, and have fun. It’s good for them emotionally and physically.
Tell your children that staying apart is part of the list your family is following to stay healthy. They can still go out and play with their friends, just keep a safe distance. For example, if they're in line for the slide, encourage them not to stand so close together.
Lastly, encourage your children to wash their hands. Many children already do this quite well.
Ask your children not to touch the playground equipment if they can avoid it. (Older kids can carry their own small bottle of hand sanitizer. For younger kids, be sure the supervising adult has one.) Remind them not to touch their face when handling objects outside.
Make handwashing part of the routine after a trip outside. As soon as they get home, have them wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
All of our lives have changed immeasurably with the coronavirus, and we're asking our children to remember a lot. As you communicate with your children, keep a positive attitude: We're doing this to keep from getting sick, so we can go outside and play and have fun. While we can’t control the actions of others, including our friends, it’s important to do our part for the health of our community.
Updated January 6, 2021