My Kid's Not Ready to Unmask Even Though Her Friends Are Doing It. How Do I Help Her Embrace Her Choice?

The decision for a kid to mask or not mask will hopefully be a short-lived conflict, but "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says gaining confidence in making a different choice from friends builds skills to last a lifetime.

A kid who's still masked while others are not

Masked and Unready

Since the mask mandate was lifted, my kids friends are all comfortable going mask-less when they hang out. My daughter has some anxiety around this. How do I tell her to approach a situation where she might be the only kid still masking?

—Masked and Unready

With COVID-19 masking policies and regulations not only changing quickly, but varying—like a school having different rules than a restaurant—it can be a challenge for children who benefit from consistency, routine, and structure. But if living through years of a pandemic has taught us nothing else, it's the necessity of flexibility. And the importance of staying connected even as everyone assesses risk differently and makes personal choices. For your daughter, gaining confidence in her choice as different from her friends' choices can benefit her through pandemic life, and beyond.

Get the Lay of the Land

To best support your child in facing the possible discomfort of being the only masked one in her group, you need a good understanding of the social dynamics. In my therapy practice, I regularly check in with kids going through the unmasking transition: "How many kids still wear masks? Is there any teasing about masks?" This offers a sense of the climate around peer pressure when it comes to wearing or not wearing masks. If you haven't already, ask your daughter about how kids are treating each other generally at school, and in her friend group. Knowing the intensity of peer pressure can help you better prepare her for how to manage it.

Confidence in Individuality

I don't know how old your daughter is, but especially in older elementary and early teen years, feeling different from others is especially anxiety-provoking. Wearing a mask in an otherwise maskless group is an obvious way to stand out! In my work with children who have weaker immune systems due to medical conditions, we often explore how they can feel a sense of belonging even as they may not be able to do everything their peers do. The mask debates have intensified this struggle as these children feel especially vulnerable to unmasking, but don't want to stand out as different.

The reasons your daughter wants to continue wearing a mask may actually be less important than supporting her in finding confidence and comfort in her choice. You can help prepare her to face a situation as the only masked kid by talking through with her why it's important to her. Identifying our values when we are in a stressful situation can help us speak up more confidently. For example, maybe she feels a sense of responsibility toward more vulnerable people, or she prioritizes her own safety, preferring to wait until there's been more time living with lower rates of infection.

Once she can clearly explain why she's committed to wearing a mask, encourage her to come up with a short script such as "I'm keeping my mask on because my grandma gets sick easily and I want to protect her." And then, right before she's going to be with her friends, have her practice what she can say to them, so it's fresh in her memory. This can help her feel more prepared and less anxious as she faces a group of friends making a different choice. In fact, how her friends respond can be a good gauge of friend quality—are they accepting or judgmental? This could open up discussion around important ingredients for healthy friendships, another formative part of growing up.

The Role of Anxiety

With all that said about building confidence in her individuality, as a responsible psychologist, I want to also address the possibility that wanting to stay masked is more about anxiety than personal values. If anxiety is driving her choice, that has different implications for how to handle it because you don't want to accidentally reinforce an anxious response that starts to spread to other areas of her life.

One reason I have heard to stay masked—mostly from middle schoolers—is that they have become accustomed to making faces under their masks that would embarrass them if revealed. Others may have a fear of becoming ill that is out of proportion to the risk (true of many adults, and not uncommon on the heels of a global pandemic). If local infection rates are low and vaccination rates are high, for example, these are metrics accepted as low community risk. If the individual is vaccinated (and boosted if eligible), they are at an even lower risk. Talking through some of the science and hard numbers may help alleviate anxiety.

People also struggle with the reality that there is no such thing as zero risk. Even though this is true for many activities of daily life (like riding in a car), living in a pandemic has heightened anxiety for people of all ages. If you get a sense from your daughter that she's experiencing intense anxiety about taking off her mask (feeling panicked, having constant and uncontrollable fears of illness), addressing her anxiety rather than the mask choice will be more effective. This could include relaxation exercises like deep breathing or short meditations to dial down her body's fear response and thought challenges to re-frame irrational worries so she can tell herself, "I am a healthy and careful person making good choices and doing the best I can to stay healthy." If her anxiety doesn't decrease and significantly interferes with her life, you may want to consider getting her help from a qualified mental health professional.

The Bottom Line

The details of why your daughter chooses to continue wearing a mask may affect how you want to prepare her for managing group situations as the only masked friend. No matter her personal reasons, this situation can serve as an excellent opportunity to practice skills around asserting individuality with confidence rather than conforming to social pressures, and figuring out who are "good" friends. Even as the "to-mask-or-unmask" choice will hopefully be part of pandemic history soon, the experience of standing up for one's convictions is a timeless part of growing up.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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