As we move into a different phase of the COVID-19 pandemic with more and more people having protection through both vaccination and infection and with the availability of effective treatments for those most at risk, public health officials are loosening up many mitigation efforts such as mask mandates. While many people, especially children, are happy to see this is finally occurring, it has created an unexpected phenomenon – many children are showing some reluctance to remove their masks.
After months of wearing masks, some children are hesitant to reveal their entire faces. This may seem surprising to some, however, when you consider that many young people are going through adolescence and dealing with significant changes in their appearance ranging from braces to acne, it becomes more understandable. “Some kids and teens think that when they take the mask off, they don’t look as attractive as when the mask is covering half their face. For many children and adolescents, they have never been unmasked in their current school,” remarked Dr. Lloyd Fisher, a pediatrician at Reliant Medical Group and President of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The fact is that children change a lot at that age, and taking off the mask is a bit of an unveiling for them. For some children and teens, that creates anxiety.”
Another reason is that children have heard the message for two years that wearing a mask is essential to keep themselves, their family members, and their peers safe – leading to fear of what is going to happen if they are not wearing a mask. Children are generally good at following directions especially once they are in a routine. “Some children have told me after two years of being told it was the rule, they worry they are going to get in trouble if they take their mask off or just feel like they are doing something wrong. They also may be frightened that removing their mask may cause some loved one to become sick and it would be their fault,” said Dr. Fisher.
In addition, there are some children who have family members or are themselves at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 infection and may choose to continue to wear a mask. “Masks can be polarizing for some people,” added Dr. Fisher. “We should remember that for some people they are still necessary. Parents, teachers, and students need to know that each situation is unique and that ‘mask-optional’ means that it’s perfectly okay to wear a mask if you want to and we should support each child and family’s choice.”
As parents try help a child who is reluctant to shed their mask, it’s important to consider the larger context of the child’s anxiety. “We should remember that kids have been through a lot the past couple of years. Their lives have been very disrupted, so it’s not that surprising that some of them have concerns over this,” stated Dr. Fisher. “Basically, we need to give them time to adjust. Fortunately, for most of them taking off the mask will just take time. Parents should always consult with their pediatrician if they feel their child is having difficulty dealing with evolving mask policies or if they have concerns about their own child’s safety going to school unmasked.”