My kids rarely see people's faces now that everyone is wearing masks. Will their social development be stunted?

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  • As long as you get ample maskless face-to-face time with your kids, and they play with each other without masks, the coverings shouldn't impact their development.
  • Smiles and frowns are only one part of our nonverbal communication repertoire, so emphasize gestures, body language, and tone of voice to compensate.
  • Alternatives like face shields can also allow kids to recognize adults and read their facial expressions and lips.
  • Have a coronavirus quandary for Anna? Submit it anonymously here.
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Dear Anna,

My kids, 3 and 5, are pretty good about wearing masks in public — in some ways, for them, it's a fun accessory to showcase their love of dogs and dinosaurs.

But I worry about what impact other people's mask-wearing has on them. Will they grow up fearful of others, not seeing that the stranger staring at them is actually smiling at their cuteness? Will they have dulled emotional intelligence from being unable to see other kids' facial expressions? Will they smile less themselves having fewer smiles to mimic? Please ease this worried mom's mind.
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— Jennifer, Chicago

Dear Jennifer,

You're in luck: While I can't always truthfully live up to requests like "ease my mind," in your case, I think I can help.
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First, as eye-rolling as it sounds, remember that you're not alone — and I mean that in two ways.

One, your kids' peers are also living in a world where strangers, teachers, and in some cases family members are masked, so if big if the situation were to have any long-term effects, it wouldn't be something that only holds your kids back. Two, many parents share your concern, or at least broader concerns about how the pandemic will affect their kids' development. While not a parent myself, I've heard plenty of friends agonize over how too much screen time or too few play dates might screw their little ones up for good.
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But I have more comforting news for you than "misery loves company." For that, I turned to Nicole Beurkens, a holistic child psychologist (and mom of four kids) in Michigan. She told me that so long as your kids are getting some (bare) face time, even if just with you and each other, all the literature and even observations of other cultures suggests a masked society won't do much damage.

"There's so much we don't know right now," she said, "but everything we know about child development says things are going to be OK."

Be intentional about your other communication cues and mask-less time at home

It's true that nonverbal communication is important for young kids' ability to both read and convey emotions, but smiles and frowns are only a part of that.
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Consider that kids in other parts of the world where face coverings are normal, like the Middle East, develop normally, Beurkens said.

With masks on, kids are still "able to see our eyes, we can emphasize tone, our gestures, our body language, we can be intentional about being more articulate with our words," Beurkens said. "Those can all compensate."

Then, when you're at home or somewhere else safe, de-mask. They'll be OK as long as "they're getting ample face-to face-time with adults unmasked," Beurkens said, adding that that does mean you need to be intentional about not wiling away all your (and their) time in front of the TV or internet. Encourage them to play together unmasked, too, just in case they like their masks that much.
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Try alternatives, like a face shield, if you want

There are also creative alternatives to standard fabric masks that allow for more facial expressions to come through or for adults to feel more familiar to kids. "Parents wonder if it's scary for kids, or harder for them to recognize people they know," Beurkens said.

To address that concerns, teachers, particularly those with hearing impaired students, may use face shields, for example, and some healthcare professionals have taken to pinning their photos to their outfits so their young patients can recognize their PPE-clad team.

But in general, the issue of masks and kids "tends to be a much bigger issue for us than it is for them," Beurkens said.
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For them, the biggest issue these days is uncertainty. "The constant uncertainty and change can be opportunity to hep kids be resilient and flexible, but it can also be wearing and a challenge," Beurkens said. "Kids thrive on routines and consistency."

And don't just focus on making sure they have a routine; attempt to follow one yourself, including some time to de-stress, too, Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a certified school psychologist, told me back in March. "Toddlers aren't going to feel our anxiety," she said, "if we're not a hot mess ourselves."
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Senior health reporter Anna Medaris Miller is here to help you make decisions about living life in the current "normal," which is anything but. Drawing on her in-depth reporting on the pandemic; connections with medical, mental health, and public health experts; and own life and common sense, she'll help you get through coronavirus quandaries big and small. Submit your questions for Anna anonymously here.

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