Struggling to get kids to mask up? These expert and parent-tested solutions will take the stress out of kids’ face mask routines

Two children, a Caucasian boy and a Caucasian girl, sitting outside wearing fabric home-made face masks to cover their nose and mouth. You can see that they are smiling beneath their masks.
Wearing a facial covering can be tough for kids, but parents and experts say there are ways to make masking up a bit more manageable. (Photo: Getty Creative) (Tamilisa Miner via Getty Images)

Face coverings have been a part of our daily lives for nearly two years in an attempt to protect ourselves and those around us and slow the spread of COVID-19. Despite that, getting children to wear their masks can still be a battle, something that can be frustrating for everyone involved.

For moms and dads who still hear, "This mask is too tight," and, "Why do I have to wear this?" on a daily basis, Yahoo Life spoke with parents and medical professionals who understand that the struggle is real.

From convincing kids to put on coverings that fit snugly over their nose and mouth to reminding the entire family why masks are important to keep others safe, here's what experts say about how to address kids' mask-wearing concerns while still getting them to cover up.

Explain why mask-wearing is important

According to Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and founder of Happiest Baby, the reason we wear masks is twofold.

"It's important for children to wear masks to keep themselves and their families healthy," Karp tells Yahoo Life. "Little kids don't get as sick as older kids or adults so that's a good thing, but they can bring it home and make everyone else in the family sick."

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Masking up also helps kids see we're all in this together.

"Wearing a face covering signals to your community that you recognize this isn't a personal health issue, it's a public health issue," Karp says. "It shows we're doing our part — and we're helping others do the right thing by showing them."

While your child's age and developmental level may determine how you explain these concepts, Karp says understanding why masks are important is the first step in helping children overcome any issues.

Devon Breithart, an occupational therapist in Seattle, Wash., says power struggles with kids — like whether or not to put on that mask — often come from them being asked to do things without knowing the rationale behind them. When a child becomes frustrated with a directive they do not understand, problems arise.

To prevent this type of stand-off, Breithart recommends parents say something as simple as, "We're wearing these so we don't get sick and so we don't get other people sick."

"Telling them why they're doing this can really help," she says.

Find a mask that fits correctly

The American Academy of Pediatrics says it's safe for kids ages 2 and older to wear a facial covering and suggests face masks fit over the mouth and nose, snugly along the side of the face without any gaps. Karp echoes these guidelines and shares a few tips for finding that perfect fit regardless of your child's age or size.

The The Happiest Baby on the Block author compares shopping for the perfect face mask to trying on various pairs of shoes until you find a pair that works.

"If it doesn't quite fit the first time or it's uncomfortable for your child, try something else rather than trying to force them into something uncomfortable," Karp suggests. "You want the mask to cover from the bridge of the nose down to the chin and it should be snug, but not so tight it leaves a mark on the face."

Test different styles and fabrics to find their favorite

Breithart says parents may need to try various styles of masks to get the correct fit. For example, if your child finds masks with ear loops are always too tight or irritating, try a style that ties in the back. Similarly, if their mask is itchy, try a softer fabric.

She also recommends a bit of empathy.

"If you are an adult and you can wear your mask without a problem, it seems like it's no big deal," she explains, "but it might be annoying or even painful for your kid."

Andrea Johnson, a mom from Vista, Calif., knows this all too well.

"Something I've learned that helped us get our daughter to wear masks was to get fabrics she liked," Johnson, who learned to make masks by hand at the start of the pandemic, says.

Johnson says the key to mask-wearing success in her home was being able to choose fabrics her 3-year-old loved like Frozen and Baby Shark prints and any fabric in her favorite color, pink. At school, however, what works best for Johnson's daughter is wearing store-bought cloth masks that she can easily put on and take off by herself.

After some trial and error, Jessica Stephens of Charlestown, Ind. found her oldest daughter prefers disposable masks to cloth ones.

"For her, they are easier to breathe in and they fit better," Stephens explains. "They don't tug on her ears and they don’t feel as thick."

The 8 year old also found she prefers variety packs of masks — packages that come with several masks in different colors — so she can match her mask to her outfit.

Stephens adds that, even when your child finds a mask they love, it's easy for those masks to get lost or dropped on the ground. The Indiana mom now buys mask lanyards so she no longer has to worry about her kids' favorite masks falling on the floor and getting lost when they remove them.

Give kids choices, and some control

Breithart says emphasizing that you're giving your kids choices about their masks — where you can — allows them to feel some control in a situation where they have very little.

"Even just helping them pick from a few different styles so they can decide what's comfiest can be helpful," she says, "especially when they don't have much of a say over where or when they have to wear a mask."

Johnson has tried this tactic in her own home and says it really does work.

"I give [my daughter] a choice between two or three masks each day and she picks one to wear and packs one so she has an extra," she shares. "Letting her pick helps her feel like a big girl."

Get kids excited about mask-wearing (Yes, really!)

Karp offers a number of suggestions for getting kids excited to put (and keep) their masks on. Allowing kids to decorate their mask, getting extra facial coverings to put on stuffed animals, using a reward chart to track successful mask-wearing or even giving your child's mask a quirky name are all ways to make a challenging task a bit more fun.

"If you call it 'Protecto Mask' or something like that, it gives the mask a little bit of personality," Karp says, "anything that makes a mask more fun and normalizes it so it isn't such a big deal."

Breithart suggests writing a social story — a story that talks through an experience a child may encounter in real life in advance — about mask-wearing with your child. In the story, Breithart suggests including details about why people wear masks and when they wear them, as well as photos of yourself or other people your kids know wearing their own masks.

"Social stories are a technique we often use with children who have autism," Breithart explains regarding the tool, which child therapists often use to provide guidance about future circumstances to their patients, "but it can be really effective for typically developing kids or kids with other disabilities, too."

Set a good example

For parents, Karp says modeling mask-wearing by putting on your own face covering, even if you are vaccinated, can help get kids on board.

"Wearing your own mask sets an example for your kids," he says, "and helps them recognize that they can set an example for others, too."

Johnson says that's one of her biggest tactics.

"Even though we are both fully vaccinated, my husband and I still wear our masks all the time," she shares. "I don't think our daughter would be as receptive to wearing a mask if we didn't do it, too. She sees us do it, so she knows to do it."

Video courtesy NBCU/NBC News