How to Talk to Your Kids About the New Masking Guidelines

Per new CDC guidelines, masking is now a "personal preference" in most places, and for some kids this change is scary. We need to address their comfort and readiness when it comes to putting the masks away.

Black parent talking to Black child
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It's been two years of constant change, and now we're asking our children to deal with yet another. Masks are now optional in many places and for kids whose families have been diligently wearing masks for so long, this change can feel abrupt, and even scary.

It can be a shock to the system to walk into school or the grocery store and see fewer people wearing masks after so long.

According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the time has come to "put your masks in a drawer, anticipate you may need them again, and hope that we don't."

That's a lot of nuance and uncertainty for young people to parse, especially those young ones who can't remember life before COVID-19, or older kids who have seen the virus destroy the life they once knew.

How Do We Decide When and if to Mask?

Kids may wonder if masks protect us and others, shouldn't we keep wearing them? That's a reasonable question for children to have.

According to the CDC, the decision to mask or not should be based on your health and the current risk of COVID in your community. If the risk is currently low, the CDC recommends you "wear a mask based on your personal preference, informed by your level of risk."

That means that some families will continue to feel most comfortable in a mask, while others can't wait to throw them in that drawer Dr. Walensky talked about. And either reaction is valid. We've been through two years of the pandemic. It's normal to be afraid of more change, and it's normal to be thrilled to hear officials talking about the prospect of getting back to normal. The way your kids are processing the loosening of mask restrictions is unique to their experience of the pandemic—and yours.

Masking Will Look Different for Each Family

Dr. Gail Saltz is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York-Presbyterian Hospital and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio.

Dr. Saltz tells Parents, "Each family needs to be able to make their own choice as to whether they feel comfortable having their child attend school without a mask based on the science and their medical situation for that child and that child's family exposure. If they are immunocompromised and getting COVID-19 would be a high risk to themselves or their at-home family this should change the equation. It may be helpful to discuss the matter with their pediatrician to get guidance."

Dr. Saltz wants parents to understand that this isn't a political decision, but a medical and public health matter, and that "it appears COVID-19 will now be an endemic virus, which means it is here for the foreseeable future."

She says unmasking now may be something of a break, and that we may need to mask again in the future, so now is the time for some families to take a break from masking if that is a behavior that is difficult for your family to maintain.

Go Slow and Lead With Kindness

It's important that kids feel like their parents are hearing them during this time, so ask them how they feel about taking off their masks. If they're feeling very anxious about it, it might be a good time to talk to their primary care provider or a counselor about how the pandemic has impacted them. This has been a traumatic event, even if your child didn't lose anyone. Getting help for your child's mental health may help them enter this next phase of endemic COVID-19 with more confidence.

If your child's school has gone mask optional, let them know that they really do have the option but make the decision with your child. They can take their time in deciding when to unmask and can make the call when they feel safe. It's also important to remind them to respect the choices their peers make and to treat others with kindness as we move into the next steps of the pandemic.

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