Trick-or-treating princesses and superheroes ding doorbells in hopes of candy—which is joyfully given by someone who compliments their Halloween costumes.
As an adult, we can imagine that scene on the last night of October through rose-colored glasses. But if we dig a little deeper, we probably have a few scary memories too.
Personally, I’ll never forget the time I walked up to my neighbor’s house on this chilly holiday. Their porch light was switched off—the universal signal that they are not home—yet there was a bowl of candy among seasonal decorations left on the porch. So I skipped up to the display, anxious to pick out my favorite piece of candy from the full bowl.
As I dipped my hand into the sea of chocolate, the bowl began to move. In fact, the entire display (which I assumed was a plastic “ghost” designed to hold a bowl of individually-wrapped candies) started to stand up. My eyes grew wide as I sharply inhaled and fled down the driveway towards my mother, who was snickering at the entire performance. To this day, I’m leery of Halloween decorations.
The following year I went to my first—and last—Haunted House. One too many people popped out and scared me silly until I finally ran outside in fear. One of those actors followed me, removed her mask, and sweetly told me it was supposed to be fun. It’s hard to forget the lines running through my mind as I looked at the old lady in a gory costume, “Why would anyone think this in fun?”
Like most adults, I’ve gained a sense of discernment over what is reality vs make believe and that there are real people behind those costumes and masks. (Nonetheless, you won’t see me at a Halloween party.) While I can rationalize these experiences in my thirty-year-old brain, most children and teenagers have not mastered those skills yet.
When kids learn to discern facial expressions
Evidence suggests that kids don’t grasp the skills of facial expressions until middle childhood. Add one new element to a face, like a mask or glasses, and four to seven year olds have trouble recognizing a familiar face.
One study found that kids in that age range could easily identify a person in less than five seconds. Yet once the researchers added a silly hat, the participants struggled to guess the correct identity.
Another research study concluded that children don’t develop facial recognition skills until the age of six.
This makes sense. It’s harder to distinguish “who is who” on a rainy day when everyone is covered by rain jackets or ponchos, knee-high galoshes, and patterned umbrellas. The same applies to kids discernment through face masks.
Is your child included in the one percent of kids who have maskaphobia—a fear of masks or costumes? This diagnosis isn’t a new trend where your child has a brand new fear due to the latest mask requirements. Instead, this diagnosis includes a persistent fear that has lingered for at least six months.
Not sure if this applies to your little one? Think about all of the popular characters on television shows and movies who wear masks or hats:
- superheroes (Batman, Spiderman)
- Disney characters (the Incredibles, Mulin)
- toddler shows (PJ Masks, Paw Patrol)
- and popular movies too (Harry Potter, and every superhero movie).
Why do kids fear people in masks? First, it’s hard to discern who is actually behind that mask, even if it is a familiar neighbor or friend. Second, traumatic memories (like my childhood Halloween escapades) trigger fears which could include maskaphobia.
How to explain the purpose of masks
Masks will probably be sticking around for a while. Take the time to thoroughly explain the purpose of masks and how your child can participate in protecting their community. Here are a few suggested talking points.
The purpose of wearing masks:
- To protect self and others from germs (just like hand-washing).
- Right now the Covid germs are more contagious than the colds you usually get. That is why we are wearing masks.
- To respect and follow the rules given by our leaders.
- And to help other people not get sick. Masks are often used as a deceptive way to hide one’s identity, but that is not the purpose behind masks in today’s world.
How to wear a mask:
- Put your mask on, then take it off. Do this a few times so your child can see you in a mask, discern that it is you behind your mask, and learn how to properly wear/remove their own mask.
- Allow your child to pick out their own mask.
- Make a mask together. Choose a fun fabric, select fancy hair ties (for the ear loops), or add a fun embellishment.
- Set a designated time to all wear masks at home as a dress-rehearsal. Try the five minutes right before dinner. Everyone puts on their masks, clears off the kitchen table, washes their hands, and sits down. Then you can all remove them together before the first bite. (Tip: Keep your masks in a designated basket/hook so you always know where they are.)
- Make it a game. Wear your mask and make a dramatic facial expression (joy, surprise, disgust, anger, sadness, etc.). Have your kids guess the emotion! Then let your child try. It’s helpful to play this in front of a mirror so your child can see how much the mask covers their expressions.
- Mention that superheroes usually wear a mask. And our doctors and nurses are superheroes too because they help protect us from germs and heal us when we are sick!
When the fear persists
For the foreseeable future, masks will be worn in many public areas, especially while traveling. Fears are often more deeply rooted than a one hundred year old tree, which means one little push won’t knock the tree over. If these helpful tips don’t budge your child’s fear of masks, let’s talk.
Our team has years of training and experience with helping our clients overcome and cope with their fears. And we know that now more than ever you need freedom from maskaphobia.
Contact us today! (We even offer options that don’t require masks, like virtual sessions!)
Teen Social Anxiety