How to Handle Mask Wearing for Kids When Yours Is Coming Off

Take off your mask, and your kids likely will, too. Here's what experts say to do to keep kids safe.

It's hard to believe, but we've finally reached a point where the majority of Americans are ditching the masks they've worn throughout the pandemic, thanks to the availability of vaccines. After years of debate over individual rights and discussions about mask safety, it's common to see bare faces on the street again. Masks are no longer required by most restaurants, stores, or airlines, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has relaxed their guidelines about when to wear them.

An image of a mom holding her daughter's hands.
Getty Images.

For parents, this is a strange time. We are navigating our newly restored freedom to go maskless while trying to ensure the safety of our young children, who may be unvaccinated. Kids under 5 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, though it is likely coming soon, and some parents remain uncomfortable with giving older kids the shot. It can be very confusing for families as the rules change rapidly. And each time there's a resurgence of COVID-19, the masks tend to come out of hiding again, with new mandates.

In March 2022, the CDC recommended that people check the COVID-19 level in their communities and wear a mask indoors in public settings when in areas of high transmission, even if they've already been vaccinated. People who live with immunocompromised individuals and those who are vulnerable to getting sick might wear a mask more often to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. The experts at Johns Hopkins further clarify that those with unvaccinated children over age 2 should make sure their kids mask up indoors and in crowded outdoor areas of moderate or high risk.

Young children often mirror their parents and caregivers' behavior, so they may be confused about what they're supposed to do. What should you tell them if you feel like you can safely ditch your mask, but they still need to keep theirs on? Here's how experts say parents should address this.

1. See Where Your Child Is At

Some parents will simply choose to stay masked whenever their child has to be, figuring it's easier than having to explain everything. That's not a bad idea, says clinical psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. Modeling proper behavior is the most effective way to teach your children what to do. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner Aparna Kumar, Ph.D., agrees, pointing out that parents themselves may benefit from keeping their masks on when they are with their unvaccinated kids—especially when they're indoors in public spaces.

Continued mask-wearing won't be necessary for every parent, of course. Some children may have an easier time keeping their masks on while their parents have theirs off, and many kids have grown accustomed to wearing masks over the past few years, notes Dr. Kumar. For others, it may be harder, especially if they are dealing with pandemic-related anxiety. "If the child's worried about the parent being out in public without a mask, they need to put one on to make their child feel safer," says Karen Longanbach, a licensed counselor in Canton, Ohio, who has spoken to many kids about this type of concern.

During the pandemic, Longanbach has seen some children develop symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder around hand-washing and mask-wearing. According to a May 2021 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the mental and emotional health of young children has indeed worsened as a result of the crisis, with some kids experiencing "increased irritability, clinginess, and fear."

In situations like these, it's important to empathize with your children's worries and help them feel more comfortable. "Parents need to pay attention to their child's fear about COVID-19 even if they don't have that same fear," says Longanbach. To find out how your kids feel, try having an open conversation about masks. You might start by sharing the CDC's current guidelines with them, and ask for their opinion. Say, What do you think of that? Are you comfortable with it? Let's talk about it.

2. Stick to the Facts

For kids who don't want to wear a mask because others aren't, talking to them about COVID-19 in an age-appropriate way may help them understand why some people still need to wear masks and others (like you) do not.

You can explain that while kids have a much lower risk of developing severe disease or being hospitalized by the coronavirus, they can still get sick and spread it to others, suggests Dr. Kumar, founding member of Those Nerdy Girls, an interdisciplinary all-woman team that runs Dear Pandemic, a hub for COVID-19 information.

When you discuss masks, be sure to talk about the guidelines and explain what the current coronavirus transmission level is in your county. However, the risk of COVID-19 spread outdoors remains low, so kids can unmask outdoors if they are not too close to others, reminds Dr. Kumar.

3. Make a Family Plan

Call a family meeting to talk about masks and make sure that everyone is on the same page. Creating a family plan can help eliminate confusion, set expectations, and ensure that kids continue to enjoy their usual activities. Outline current masking rules and discuss how your family can adapt to those when heading to various locations.

For example, you may decide that your unvaccinated or high-risk kids that if they are playing outside and at an appropriate distance from others, they can take their masks off—so long as they have them ready to put back on when necessary. "It's OK to kind of balance and lower the anxiety of masking," says Dr. Kumar. "In fact, it's good to start to expose them to scenarios where they may not be wearing a mask."

Make sure to have conversations about situations in which they might encounter people without masks when they are still wearing theirs. "You might say, 'There may be people there who are not wearing their masks. We are going to wear our masks. And this is why,'" says Dr. Kumar.

4. Remind Kids That Masks Are Not Forever

The circumstances surrounding the pandemic are constantly evolving, as are official masking guidelines. You can remind your kids that a day will come when masks will be a distant memory. Until then, experts say the best thing you can do is maintain communication, be consistent, and do what's best for your family. "This is key," says Dr. Kumar. "Don't waiver because others are doing something different."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles