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How masks affect a child's emotional health. Kids in Masks - Part 2

What's really going on in a child's brain when they see masks? More than you could possibly imagine... and that's part of the problem.

Before we dive in, here's my disclaimer. We are all in new, and unknown territory with the current global and national events. No one knows the long-term emotional, social, and economic impact of these extremely complicated and multi-faceted issues. These are my insights as a forerunner in emotional safety education, offered only to provide an additional vantage point as you prepare for school this fall.

The brain imagines information it does not know to fill in the blanks. If you recall from Part 1, adults have a lifetime of experiences and an expansive network of information called schemas. Schemas are like a giant web of information your brain compiles around a subject to help you make sense out of the world by categorizing and connecting it. It's like a giant cerebral file cabinet. Your brain feels safe when life and information is in its place and everything is in order.

Our brain's ability to file and connect information is why visual aids are highly effective for the comprehension and retention of new ideas.

If I told you to think of something orange, round, and juicy, you most likely pictured an orange by the first or second word. That cluster of information is a schema that fills in any missing blanks to help you quickly reach an answer. It's like your brain's personal Google auto-fill. Depending on how your brain auto-fills is how you'll see and respond to the situations at hand.

Have you ever prematurely jumped to a conclusion?

This auto-association goes beyond your conscious thought process to your subconscious thought process in the same way PTSD and trauma responses are triggered. All it takes is one smell, sound, thought, a scene in a movie, a word, or an object, and everything associated with that schema goes into auto-fill. If that schema is associated with the emotions of fear, trauma, pain, or any other sensation that would cause emotional uncertainty your brain can bypass rational thinking to throw you straight into fight or flight.

It's not a conscious decision. It's embedded in your survival instincts.

The only way to un-trigger the response is to re-associate the schema and retrain the brain's auto-emotional-physical response to it. It's a process called neuroplasticity that's showing a lot of promise, but as you can conclude, it's a process that usually requires counseling and psychotherapy.

So let's consider what might be taking place in a child's brain when they wear masks at school. (Again, my disclaimer for the skeptics, no one knows the long-term emotional safety effects, but we can consider the cause and effect reactions of one's survival instincts.)

Schema #1: Children model their behavior and responses after their caregivers.

  • Mask = Covid-19

  • Covid-19 = A scary sickness that can kill me, my mom and dad, and everyone I love

  • Death = The worst thing ever (Level 1 and 2 threat in Maslow's hierarchy of emotional safety needs)

Schema #2: Children don't have the ability to distinguish between real and perceived danger.

  • Mask = Survival with real and present danger.

  • Survival = Masks can cause physical and emotional anxiety because they cover and obstruct the most vulnerable zone in our body— our airway through both the nose and mouth.

  • Danger = Children may feel they can't breathe after hours of being in a mask.

Schema #3: Children are sensory. They experience their world by how it feels.

  • Mask = This is bugging me. It's stuffy. It's hard to breathe or talk... I'm muzzled.

  • Muzzled = feelings of isolation behind a mask.

  • Isolation = Feelings of belonging, having a voice, and being accepted are essential emotional needs. How does the veil of a medical mask effect that? Do we lose our ability to communicate through facial expressions? What happens if a child takes off their mask? Are we teaching children to fear each other?

I can't tell you all the answers or how deeply this "new normal" could affect an entire generation of children, but I do know this for sure. There will be an effect.