The COVID-19 Pandemic has had an immense impact on millions of people across Australia – not least of which is the compulsory wearing of masks to minimise the spread of the virus.
Common masks that are seen include surgical masks, homemade fabricated masks, colourful or patterned cotton masks, or even big white respirator masks. When we step out of the house we are confronted with masks almost wherever we go, in shopping centres, grocery stores, schools, and parks to name a few examples.
While most people have accepted seeing masks everywhere we go, for children, seeing masks everywhere can be quite frightening and the cool colourful pattern masks can still be scary.
For children, masks may be reminders of threat, whether it be infection, hospital experiences, or even triggering an awareness of the frightening times that we are living in, stirring up feelings of uncontrollable uncertainty of the future.
Children that are struggling with mask phobia during these times would be very distressed, and seeing masks almost every time they step outside the house may trigger some negative behaviours.
What is Mask Phobia?
Mask phobia is an intense fear of masks which is also commonly associated with a fear of costume and masks; it is most common in toddlers and young children.
To understand mask phobia in children, we have to put ourselves in the position of a child and how they see the world.
From a child’s perspective, they have witnessed a lot of change in their lives within the past year and a half.
They may now see their parents working from home, isolating from the outside world during lockdowns, spending time away from other family members and friends. When their parents go out of the house, they put on masks and use social distancing safety measures.
When children are out in the public, they see strangers faces half-covered by masks.
This overall experience can be disconcerting, frightening and cause sadness.
When children are young, the skill of facial recognition hasn’t fully developed and is a lot weaker than it is in adolescence. Children younger than 6 years pay attention to individual features such as the nose, and the colour and shape of the eyes. One study found that children that were asked to look at pictures in which faces were partially blocked off show that they have trouble recognizing familiar faces when some of those features were not fully visible.
Another study found that in children aged 4-7, facial recognition was impaired when a superfluous hat was added to the face of people that they had been exposed to five times previously.
Research suggests if friends, neighbours, or school teachers were seen from a distance while wearing masks, they may look more unfamiliar to children than they do to adults. As a result of masks being used by the majority of the public, from a children’s perspective, not being able to recognise and read faces can be a distressing situation.
For some children, masks may be a trigger from trauma. Masks are frequently used in frontline workplaces eg hospitals, dentists, and the doctor’s office. If a child has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event where masks were present, seeing the public and family wearing masks may be a trauma trigger. (My topic page on Understanding Trauma Triggers talks about this topic further.)
Tips for Parents
- One way parents can introduce and desensitise masks is incorporating it into child’s play, for example, with a couple of different toys and using a mask, perhaps as a hat for a teddy bear.
- Put on and take off your mask a couple of times in front of your child. This helps the child be mindful that it is you under the mask.
- Children mix up emotions. For example, a child may look at a frightened face and say that they looked sad, angry or disgusted. When we add a mask, we have taken away information. This makes it difficult for children to read emotional signals, which can cause them to feel unsettled and distressed. If you are wearing a mask, it may be helpful to be really thorough when giving directions, giving an explanation and communicating clearly to your child if there is a problem.
- It may be helpful to explain to your child that we wear masks to help others. If we don’t communicate to children all the information in appropriate language that they can understand, they will draw upon their own thoughts and life experiences to fill in the blank and could assume it to be dangerous.
How do we treat Mask Phobia?
Children that are living with mask phobia may be experiencing triggers almost every day in these times. This can cause significant distress and negatively impact their wellbeing. For example, children may start to have a fear of going out of the house to avoid seeing people wearing masks.
However, avoidance will increase their fear. Children that are living with mask phobia may benefit from seeing a mental health profession such as a counsellor. An effective therapy for treating mask phobia is exposure therapy, which can be intertwined in play – for example, using a colourful mask as a bed cover, car cover, rug for a doll house or a hat for a teddy bear.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- Freire, A., & Lee, K. (2001). Face recognition in 4-to 7-year-olds: Processing of configural, featural, and paraphernalia information. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 80(4), 347-371.