Unmasked: Helping Kids Navigate New COVID-19 Policies
Recently, Fairfax County Public Schools updated its COVID-19 policies so that masks are no longer required in the school setting. As with all the transitions and changes we have navigated over the past 2 years, every child and family will have their own reaction to this news, ranging from relief to excitement to anxiety to frustration. Some kids may be nervous to unmask due to health concerns; still others may be concerned about how their peers will react to the new rules, and what it will mean if they make a different choice from their peers. Many parents are wondering: what is the best way to help kids navigate this big change?
It can be hard for kids to understand why the rules are changing now. For many very young children, they might not remember a time when everyone did not wear a mask to school! Therefore, it is important for parents to explain clearly, in age-appropriate terms, the ways in which the pandemic is changing in their area (for example, falling case counts, lower risks). For kids who are especially anxious about their health or the health of their loved ones, reminders of the safety measures that most people will continue to take (staying home when they are sick, washing hands regularly) may also be helpful. If desired, parents can emphasize the ways in which wearing masks to school for so long has helped to reduce risk now, to promote a sense of empowerment in their kids.
Of course, every child and family will have different comfort levels regarding whether or not to unmask. It will be helpful to talk to kids directly about their own comfort levels, and to make this an ongoing conversation, as their feelings and concerns may change over time. Parents can emphasize that they do not need to make a “permanent” choice right now. It is also helpful to offer kids input regarding the decision to unmask, especially for older kids, within the context of your own family’s comfort levels and health concerns. For younger kids, making the decision entirely by themselves will likely create too much anxiety, but involving them in the decision-making process by allowing them to share their feelings is still important.
Many kids will be the most concerned about the social impact of choosing to stay masked versus unmasking, and how their peers may react to their decisions. It can help to talk to your kids about how all families have different rules for different reasons, for many situations (not just this one), and offer them space to discuss any concerns they may have about peer reactions. They may benefit from preparing and practicing in advance what they will say if others ask them why they are choosing to remain masked or to unmask, and how to respond to different questions that may come up.
Once again, our kids show us their resilience and adaptability over and over again during this pandemic. Making sure to point this out, and reminding them of what they have handled in the past can also go a long way toward fostering a sense of confidence.
Kati Ann Stein, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist