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Tips for helping children understand the new normal

Mom showing son how to wear a face mask

In many places, the coronavirus stay-at-home orders are being lifted and people may return to work and social events in phases. We as adults may understand the new rules, so it may be easy for us to flip that switch and attempt to return to normal. But for kids it may be more difficult. Children might need some help grasping the rules changing… again. Here are a few tips that can help guide your conversation with your children.

Explain what has changed and what has stayed the same

Start by discussing how things are the same AND different. When things are changing so rapidly, it is important to highlight all the things that are staying the same. Children can still call friends, ride their bike, hang out with immediate family members, practice their favorite activities and enjoy being outdoors. This helps to reinforce the aspects of daily life that are predictable and routine, things that help us to manage during these difficult times. Then, you can move on to discussing changes.

Use simple language

When discussing the lifting of stay-at-home orders, use simple language to explain the key changes that will occur. We will be able to go to a few more places, we can meet with a small group of people, if we social distance, and caregivers may be going back to work some or all of the time. Talk to kids about how you are going to take small steps to restart activities such as going to a doctor’s appointment for medical treatment.

Talk about health safety

Parents should talk to kids about how doctors, parents and leaders are working together to create a plan for how kids and families can go out and still stay safe. This plan may mean kids have a “new normal” in which they can resume a few of their previous activities but in smaller groups or in different ways, like wearing a mask or staying six feet away from others.

Kids should be reassured they can do things to help like wash their hands, try not to touch their face, and wear a mask in public to keep themselves and others safe. Parents should invite their children to talk about how they are feeling before and when out in public so they can discuss any concerns and make a plan together to address them.

Show that masks are needed for now and not scary

Parents can tell their children that wearing masks in public is about being a good citizen like they teach them to be and have awards for at school. We wear masks so we do not pass our germs on to other people like our friends, neighbors or family. They are doing the same to keep us safe.  We can remind kids that helping others is an important part of who they are. Briefly tell children that for now, the family will wear masks when we are around people other than our immediate family. It may not be like this forever and we will talk about any changes that are occurring as a family.

It can also be helpful to talk to kids about all kinds of people who wear masks- firefighters, fighter pilots, superheroes and more! Kids can join the ranks of these special people by wearing masks in public places where they cannot practice social distancing. They are superheroes!

To help kids keep their masks on, parents can:

  • Encourage their children to practice wearing masks for short periods of time at home. Gradually increase the amount of time they are asked to wear their mask so they can get used to wearing it. You can also tie wearing their mask to fun activities at home such as watching their favorite TV show or playing a game.
  • Model wearing your own masks in public.
  • Offer small rewards for wearing masks during short.
  • Keep trips in public as short as possible, at least at first. It is unreasonable to ask a young child to wear a mask for an extended period initially. This is a new skill for kids, and they will need to practice this new skill in small doses - as we all do!
  • Ask kids to pick out their own masks or decorate premade masks so they want to wear them.
  • Make a small mask for toys or stuffed animals. Kids can take their masked comfort items with them in public to remind them to keep their masks on.

Help kids not touch their face:

  • This one is tough for all of us! Parents can recruit their children to remind them (parents) not to touch their own faces. This increases the child’s awareness of this behavior without parents having to remind or nag them constantly.
  • Keep hands busy with toys or objects to hold. If your hands are full, you are less likely to touch your face.
  • Teach alternative behaviors. We often touch our face to scratch, move our hair out of our face, or rub our eyes. You can teach children to scratch their nose on their shirt covered forearm or wipe hair out of their eyes using a pen. If we teach them other ways to do things, they are less likely to touch their faces.

Tips for handwashing:

  • Practice, practice, practice! Practice handwashing for the adequate length of time, with soap several times per day at home.
  • Make handwashing fun. If you have not seen the video of the Rock singing a song from Moana with his daughter while she washes her hands, I recommend it. Find fun new songs to sing during hand washing and make the activity fun. You could also use a visual timer to signal how long we must wash our hands. There are several options for free visual timer apps that can be added to phones or tablets.
  • Model frequent handwashing and make it a family activity.
  • Build handwashing into routines and add it to a behavior chart if needed.

Remember, behavior change takes time, practice and patience. No one learns new routines overnight, so allow your children some time to change and pack your patience. If your child is very young or has a developmental disorder, social stories can be used to teach new skills using plain language and visuals. Click here for an example of a social story about wearing masks, with the resource available in several languages. As a reminder, the American Academy of Pediatricians only recommends masks for children over two years of age.

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Child Psychology

Child Psychologist; Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine