Child wearing mask
A child has a mask affixed during a tour of The Spire, an affordable apartment community, in Alexandria, Va., on Friday, August 13, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

We got expert tips on explaining masks and vaccines to children in a way that gets them comfortable with COVID-prevention measures.

VIENNA – It’s pretty easy to console kids about things that adults don’t fear. No, Charlie, there’s no monster in the closet. Don’t worry, Becky, the thunder can’t get you. And no, Jordan, the Boogey Man isn’t real.

But it’s not always easy to talk to children about things that also scare adults. 

With COVID-19, a care-not-scare approach seems to work effectively. If you’re having trouble talking to your kids, students or younger loved ones about the pandemic, we talked to the experts to get some tips on how to start the conversation.

Can I Breathe While Wearing a Mask? 

If you run into a youngster these days, you might also come across a few common misconceptions about masks. One concern is whether or not the child can breathe through the fabric, especially if they need to wear a mask for an extended length of time.

Dr. Michael Martin, president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said kids can breathe in masks. And he said it is important for parents to explain why masks are needed before asking a child to wear one in a social setting.  

“First and foremost, reassure children that a face mask is safe and allows them to breathe without problems – then show them by wearing a mask on yourself,” Martin said. “For most children, it is usually the sensory issue of having an object on their face that bothers them. Face mask extenders or ear savers can be very helpful for kids. We also have lots of information that masks don’t cause problems when worn, even with running and exercising. It is more about getting used to wearing the mask.”

At Henry County Public Schools (HCPS), School Nurse Coordinator Sherry Vestal said students receive brief mask breaks. Staff also work with students to ensure they find the mask style most comfortable for them. Beyond that, HCPS educators encourage students concerned about mask wearing to take slow breaths, along with implementing distraction methods like coloring and reading when needed.

Another helpful tip, Martin said, is to let children pick out their own mask design and practice wearing it for short periods. He suggested offering rewards as time increments increased. 

“This helps give them a feeling of control and mastery,” Martin said. “Make a game of dress up with face masks to demystify and give them practice.”

How Can I Protect Myself Against COVID-19?

Like other school districts across the state, HCPS takes COVID-19 precautions seriously. The division has plans in place to keep students protected against the coronavirus.

“Hand washing and wearing a face mask are your first two lines of defense,” Vestal said. “Hand sanitizer is great, but nothing beats soap and water. Children should be encouraged to stay home when they are sick, eat a healthy diet and make sure that they get sufficient rest at night.”

Martin noted the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine for eligible students. 

“Getting vaccinated when eligible is the single most important thing that a child can do to protect [herself] or himself. The next most important thing to do is to wear a face mask, particularly when indoors, especially while at school,” Martin said. “Parents need to not only stress the importance of this given the mixed messaging that a child may hear or read online, but also model the behavior. If parents don’t wear face masks or get vaccinated, a child is likely to do the same.”

For parents wanting to start the vaccination conversation with their children, Martin suggested asking what the child knows about the vaccine and what their thoughts and feelings about getting the vaccine are. For accurate and vetted information, he pointed parents to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Virginia Department of Health’s websites.

“During this discussion, it is important to stress that while the body can fight the COVID-19 infection on its own, the vaccine helps the body do it faster so that the child doesn’t feel sick and helps make it less likely they will spread it to others,” Martin said. “Emphasize that the vaccines are incredibly safe and have been vigorously studied to ensure they work and won’t hurt anyone.”

Becoming an Informed Source

Children have questions. And sometimes, adults don’t have all of the answers. That presents a great opportunity to learn together.

“Parents don’t always know the answer and it is an excellent teachable moment for kids, particularly older children. Modeling the behavior of seeking more information from credible sources like the CDC, AAP, and VDH is a valuable lesson in problem solving,” Martin said. “It is also important that parents not add to the misinformation that children are likely already indirectly getting. Mixed messages with inaccurate information only leads to greater confusion for children and potentially greater anxiety.”

In Henry County, the school nurse at each school and the two nurses in the central office serve as valuable resources for student, parent, and staff questions about COVID-19. If they don’t know the answer, Vestal said they contact the health department. 

“Information regarding COVID-19 and the variant are constantly changing,” Vestal said. “It is important to ask the people who are in-the-know and know the updated information regarding the virus, vaccine, transmission and treatment.”

Another great source is consulting a child’s trusted doctor.

“Pediatricians remain the number one source of information for families. Fortunately the American Academy of Pediatrics, serving as the professional society of pediatricians, has a parent-geared website for information on COVID and other medical issues,” Martin said. “In addition, a family’s pediatrician is there to answer questions, just like any other medical issue, and should serve as a source of information. Many are even offering the COVID vaccine and COVID testing in their offices. They are supremely knowledgeable about the disease, particularly how it affects children.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com.