“How in the world will I get my kid to wear this?!”: A guide to helping your young child wear a mask
As my son's 2.5-year checkup approached, I knew that we both would need to wear masks for the duration of the doctor's appointment. Despite being a pediatric OT, I admit that -- as I imagine many parents of toddlers or young children have -- I thought to myself, "How in the world am I going to get him to wear this?"
Fast-forward to a month later: Theo wore a mask from the moment we got out of the car in the office parking lot to the moment we got back into the car after the appointment.
This would not have been possible without preparation and multiple strategies that I utilized to help him become comfortable wearing a mask -- and that I started several weeks prior to the appointment. Whether you have an upcoming appointment or just want to know how to help your child become comfortable wearing a mask for safety during these difficult times, I recommend the following:
Read a social story. A social story is an individualized short story depicting a social situation that helps children understand what to expect from their own point of view. There are several free “Wearing a Mask” social stories online. (Use Google, Pinterest or Facebook to find one you like.) We read this story with Theo several times before he was required to wear a mask. It helped him get comfortable with the idea and reasons behind wearing a mask and what to expect when he wore one. My favorite line from the story we read was, “Wearing a mask may be uncomfortable at first, but I will get used to it.” This validates his feelings but lets him know it will be OK.
Model the behavior. The first time Theo saw me in a mask, he looked panicked. However, as soon as I started to play peek-a-boo with it, he became more comfortable. I made sure that Theo saw me in a mask several times in the weeks leading up to his appointment to help him continue getting used to it. The more he saw me wear a mask, the less scared he was when he saw other people wearing masks as well.
Play and practice. The first time we attempted to put a mask on Theo, he ran and hid in a corner in our family room. I recognized that I was moving too fast for his comfort level by asking him to put one on without exploring it first. So we started slow. We played with the mask. We talked about the color and texture. We hid his favorite trucks and cars under the mask. We put the mask on his stuffed animals. We put the mask on his knee, on his foot and on his head. Eventually, he felt ready to try it on his face. The first time he put it on, I asked him to wear it for five seconds. I kept my word and allowed him to take it off after counting to five. The next time we practiced putting it on, I asked him to keep it on while we sang his favorite song, “Old McDonald.” Again, I kept my word and allowed him to take it off when we were done. Over time, he was able to keep the mask on for longer and longer periods of time.
Talk about masks and about others wearing them. Talk about why people wear masks (the social story will help with this) and be short and sweet in your explanation. “So everyone stays healthy” is the phrase we use in our home. When you see other people wearing masks, point it out to your child. Nowadays, most people wear masks when they’re out, so it is easy to find and point out all the different people wearing them. Theo’s favorite people to spot wearing masks include the UPS driver, garbage collectors and landscapers.
Video chat with grandparents or friends while wearing the mask. As part of our practice, we made a video call to Theo’s grandparents while he was wearing the mask. Not only was he excited to “surprise” them when they answered, he was also able to see himself in the mask as part of the video chat. He enjoyed this different approach to talking with his grandparents, and it reiterated that doing or wearing something new can be fun.
Praise. Positive reinforcement is key. When your child wears a mask, whether for five seconds or five minutes, make a big deal out of it. Let him know you’re proud of him and ask if he is proud of himself for trying something new.