Catherine J. Mondloch, a professor of psychology and the director of the face perception lab at Brock University in Ontario, said, “If you think even about Halloween, one of the things we know about really young children, preschool age, is when the appearance of something changes, they think the thing itself has changed.”
For parents who are starting to wear masks, she said, “Put it on, put it off a few times, so the child sees it’s still daddy.”
We are accustomed to getting lots of different information from faces, Dr. Mondloch said, ranging from the age of the person to the emotion the person is feeling to the general question of recognition and identity — that is, whether we’ve met the person before. All of those perceptual skills improve across childhood, she said.
“Even if you show children pictures of pretty exaggerated expressions, young children will make more errors” in reading the emotional states, she said. “Children mix up emotions, look at a sad face and might say the person looks scared, or misperceive anger as disgust.”
And by putting on masks, she said, we’ve taken away some of that information — and made it especially difficult for children to read emotional signals, which is, again, unsettling and disconcerting. So if you are wearing a mask, make sure to explain yourself very clearly to your child, giving directions, telling the child if there’s a problem. Dr. Olivardia said that children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and social anxiety may be particularly vulnerable here.
Dr. Harold Koplewicz, the president of the Child Mind Institute, which has extensive coronavirus resources for parents, said, “I think it’s important to explain to kids that people are wearing masks as a way to help others — otherwise they assume it’s because they’re dangerous.” Children should think of this as an act of social responsibility, he said, and it might help to compare it to washing hands, as something you do to keep yourself safe, but also to help protect others.
“It is important to first validate that it can be uncomfortable when we don’t know what or who is behind a mask,” Dr. Olivardia said in an email. “You can have a child wear their own mask, even a scary one, and recognize that they can be perceived as scary despite being a nice person.”