How to talk to kids about CDC's changing mask guidance

Korin Miller
·5-min read

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new and highly anticipated guidance Tuesday on wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the guidance largely said that people could stop wearing masks outdoors when they were socially distanced from others, there were a lot of nuances. Still, one thing is clear: You're probably going to see a lot more adults walking around outside without masks.

That's raised a lot of talk among parents about how, exactly, to talk to their children about the fact that they'll be seeing more unmasked adults — even though the pandemic isn't over. 

One of them is Dr. Dara Kass, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. Kass tweeted Wednesday that she told her 8-year-old son, Sammy, who is immunocompromised, that "he will start seeing grown-ups without masks outside — and that is OK." Kass also wrote that she "reinforced the importance of his own mask and social distancing at all times since he’s not vaxxed."  

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"This is a really important moment for parents to lead by example in a lot of different ways," Kass tells Yahoo Life. "Parents need to show their kids that they got vaccinated and, because of that, they have the ability to do a lot of things that they couldn't do before." Parents should also "start showing kids the benefit of vaccination — that they can be safer to go to work and go outside — and that none of it is an increased risk to them," she says. 

Kass says that parents should expect that kids may be "startled a bit" when they suddenly see more adults unmasked outside, but urges parents to frame this as a privilege of vaccination. 

Both infectious disease experts and child psychologists recommend that parents have a conversation about this with their unvaccinated children. The new guidance says that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can take off their masks when they walk, bike or run with members of their households or while attending small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends, but experts say it's important for kids to know that there is still a pandemic happening and that they still need to be cautious in some situations.

The CDC released new outdoor masking guidance on Tuesday for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. (Graphic courtesy of the CDC)
The CDC released new outdoor masking guidance on Tuesday for fully vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. (Graphic courtesy of the CDC)

"Kids aren't vaccinated yet — at least those under 16," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. "But COVID can cause bad infections in kids." That's why it's so important to address to children why they will still need to be masked in certain situations, even when some adults may not be, he says.

Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that parents should be "very, very clear and real about what this will look like and what it means." 

Psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, agrees. "My strongest advice to parents on this issue is to put your mindset into explaining this to your children just like you would explain any health behavior or medication your family needs to take," he says. "The attitude of, 'This is best for our health and safety.' Similarly, 'Right now it’s OK if we don’t wear our masks,' and give them the reasons why."

For younger children, the conversation should be very simple, Mendez says. Meaning, you should say something like, "Some adults will not wear a mask, but you may still have to because we need to protect everybody."

For older children, Mendez recommends sympathizing with them. "You can say, 'I know you're sick and tired of this, and you're probably going to get vaccinated in a few months,'" she says. "But be very, very clear on the differentiation of people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated and what that means."

Even though the new guidance says that even the unvaccinated can stop wearing masks outdoors when they're spaced out from others, Kass says that she will have her kids continue to wear masks outside under those circumstances. "It's more important that they wear a mask now," she says. "The risk of kids getting exposed goes up now because I can't guarantee that people who aren't wearing masks are vaccinated." Even when people are distanced, "children are not going to be as good as adults at predicting the behavior of adults who are unvaccinated," Kass says.

Overall, Kass urges parents to use this as an opportunity to warm up their children to the idea of getting vaccinated at some point. "We've been telling kids for a year that they need to stay home, wear a mask in public and talk to no one," she says. "But we need to let them know that their world is moving forward. And, once the vaccine is available for kids, they will be excited to get it."

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