As we continue to navigate daily life during a pandemic, it is increasingly clear that wearing masks can play a role in keeping people safe. But for children, especially those with sensory challenges, wearing a mask for prolonged periods can be extremely difficult. Why is that? And what can you do to help your child adapt to face coverings?

Why is mask-wearing so difficult for children with sensory challenges?

For children with sensory challenges, certain sensations and fabrics can feel highly distracting and uncomfortable – especially around the face. Masks hold fabric close the face, feel tight around the nose and chin, pull on the ears, and create a warm, damp sensation as children breathe. This takes time for all children to get used to, but for those with sensory challenges masks can feel so uncomfortable that it’s hard for them to focus on anything else. 

Aside from the physical aspect of mask-wearing, face coverings also interfere with social communication. Here are some helpful tips for communicating with children while wearing a mask.

How can you help children adapt to face coverings?

Practice during virtual therapy. If your child participates in virtual therapy, it’s an ideal time for them to practice mask-wearing with the specialized support of their therapist. 

Mask tolerance

Explain why it’s important. Use developmentally-appropriate language to tell your child why people are wearing masks. Communicate that it helps to keep them, and everyone around them, healthy.

Use a social story. Social stories use pictures and/or words to help children understand new or challenging situations. Here’s one we like for helping children learn about masks

For younger children, introduce masks during play. Put a mask on your child’s favorite stuffed animal or doll, and talk about how it is going to be wearing a mask more often to stay healthy. Let your child put the mask on the toy and take it off.

Demonstrate mask wearing. Let your child see you wearing a mask. Empathize with the fact that it’s uncomfortable. Stay positive and let them know you’re going to work on getting used to it.

Let your child choose their mask. Find different options, and let your child try them on to see which feels most comfortable. Themed, patterned, or personalized masks can also increase children’s motivation to wear them.

Build tolerance step by step. Here’s an example of how this might look:

  • Child holds the mask and feels its different parts.
  • Child puts the mask up to their face, without putting it on.
  • Child puts the mask on.
  • Child wears the mask for a specified period of time (this might be just several seconds to start). Use a timer, and occupy the child with an activity. Offer rewards, such as stickers, for successfully keeping the mask on until the timer sounds.
  • Increase the specified periods of time.

Mask tolerance 2

Wear masks together during play and other daily activities that your child enjoys. Having fun is a great way to distract your child from the fact that they’re wearing a mask!

Finally, offer your child plenty of praise for keeping their mask on. Let them know you understand that it’s not easy, but you’re proud of them for doing it. Remind them that they’re helping everyone by wearing a mask!