Are you happy or sad? How wearing face masks can impact children’s ability to read emotions

Shawn Beitler of Wyandotte visits her son Landon Beitler, who is staying at her mother's house to avoid infecting him with COVID-19, as she works as a registered nurse at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital and Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn. "I never thought I would have to make a decision like this. It was a hard decision but easy when I saw what happened to people," Beitler said, who took care of one of the first COVID patients at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.  She stops by every day that she can to say hello to her son and family through the window. "I could never live with myself if I gave it to my parents."041520 Nurses And Housing R 2

While COVID-19 is invisible to the eye, one very visible sign of the epidemic is people wearing face masks in public. After weeks of conflicting government guidelines on wearing masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that people wear nonsurgical cloth face coverings when entering public spaces such as supermarkets and public transit stations on April 3. Some cities, such as Laredo, Texas, are even imposing fines for people that walk into a store or take public transit without wearing a face covering.

As more and more people are covering their faces in public, it becomes difficult to read facial expressions and see people smile (or frown). While this may not pose challenges for adults, young children look for emotional cues from caregivers to interpret novel or potentially threatening situations. That is, children rely on their caregiver’s facial expressions and tone of voice to regulate their response toward people and new situations. The development of this emotional communication is referred to as social referencing, and occurs between infancy and the early preschool years.

How psychologists study social referencing

Think about the following situation: Ruby, a curious infant, crawls up to the oven and is about to touch it when she turns toward her mother and sees a fearful look on her face. Ruby is not very likely to touch the oven, fortunately, because she looked to her mother for clues on whether touching the oven was safe.

Researchers have studied social referencing in babies that are just starting to crawl using the “visual cliff,” a large plexiglass-top table with a checkered pattern. In the middle of the table is a visual drop off (what looks like a sudden drop, but the surface is actually uninterrupted and completely safe to crawl across). The baby is placed on one side of the table while the mother stands on the other side with a fun toy. The mother is instructed to smile or make a fearful face. In most cases, when babies see a smiling face, they crawl across the cliff, but if they see a fearful face, they choose not to cross the visual cliff.

Helping children read emotions behind face masks

During the current pandemic, how can we ensure that children form healthy interpretations of the world if one of the most expressive parts of the body, the face, is covered by a mask?

I (Rachael) struggled with this very question during the SARS (another coronavirus) epidemic in 2003, while living in Hong Kong with my two young children. Even before the epidemic, my daughter had a heightened sense of stranger danger, and became extremely agitated when she couldn’t see me. As she was developing social referencing skills, suddenly her environment changed. Almost 90 percent of the faces she was trying to interpret were covered by masks, including mine.

To help children feel at ease in a world of expressionless faces during COVID-19, a few games and strategies can help let them know that a face, with a kind and compassionate expression, is still behind the mask. For example:

  • Introduce the face mask to children in a familiar place, such as your home, before bringing them into the world of covered faces. Trying new things within the comfort and safety of your family offers children the opportunity to step outside their normal routines.
  • Let your child see the mask, and then put it on your face. Explain to your child that you will be wearing the mask when you’re out and about, and that other people will be wearing them too. Helping your child to anticipate future events offers security and eases anxiety.
  • Play peek-a-boo: Cover your mouth and then take the mask away to reveal a smile. Do this several times. Explain to your child that you’ll be smiling even though your face isn’t visible.
  • Play “guess my expression”: Ask your child to watch your eyes and eyebrows. Try to make them as expressive as your mouth (think about the term “smiling eyes”). Ask your child to guess how you’re feeling from the expression of your eyes and eyebrows. You can also reveal how the expression in the eyes matches your mouth by taking off your face mask.
  • Talk to your child through your mask. The mask will muffle your voice so it’s helpful to find a speaking volume that your child can hear.

If covering your face to prevent the spread of contagious viruses is the new norm, it is important to help young children understand how to interpret the faces behind the masks to support their social-emotional development.