Nurses and psychologists weigh in on relieving ‘mask anxiety’ in children

Nurses and psychologists weigh in on relieving ‘mask anxiety’ in children
Nurse Lisa Bittner puts a mask on a stuffed animal. (Source: WVIR)

ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - This year, a student’s most important school supply is their mask, but for some young children, wearing a mask can actually give them more anxiety and stress.

“Sometimes children will fixate on something and they’ll fixate on the mask and it bothers their ears or they can seem to concentrate on their reading because they’re thinking so much about the mask," said Lisa Bittner, a nurse for Albemarle County Public Schools and author of the school district’s mask guidelines.

Roughly 33% of young children have some kind of sensory difficulty, which can make mask-wearing uncomfortable and even scary. On top of that, fear of the virus itself can cause panic or confusion.

Psychologist Dr. Alisa Bahl says transparency and positive reinforcement is a good way to start tackling those fears early on.

“An example might be, we wear masks to keep ourselves safe and to keep others safe. Or wearing a mask prevents the virus from going from one person to the other. So it just provides a positive explanation to do this behavior,” Dr. Bahl said.

Stress reducing activities such as coloring or putting a mask on a favorite animal or toy can go a long way.

“It could be that they get to choose their mask or decorate their mask themselves so that they have a little more interest in it. It could be that the mask has a character or something that they really like," Dr. Bahl explained.

“Think of how your favorite heroes are trying to cope with all this and you might be able to cope a little bit better,” Bittner added.

Bittner and Bahl say students who are prone to mask anxiety should wear a form-fitting mask with ear protectors, take frequent breaks from wearing their mask outside and do breathing exercises if they begin to feel panicked.

Despite mask-wearing making it harder for children to pick up on social or emotional cues from others, Bittner believes it could teach young students to become more vocal about how they’re feeling.

“Even though our mouths are covered, our ears are open. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them how their day is. And by learning about their day and their feelings, you can see where they are," Bittner said.

Both Bittner and Bahl said helping a child become more accustomed to wearing a mask starts with good modeling in the home. They both agreed that as mask-wearing becomes more normalized in our day-to-day, the anxiety that comes with it may decrease.

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