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I was recently watching my toddler giggle in reaction to a silly face that my husband made, and it occurred to me that come September, he will spend a large portion of his day in an environment where all the adults around him will be wearing face masks. As someone who is only just beginning to grasp the concepts of emotional cues and language skills (both of which are tied to facial expressions), what will face-mask wearing mean for my son’s development? Is there something that caregivers, teachers and parents can do to make this weird reality for little people less weird? In other words...Is my kid doomed to have the emotional intelligence of a cyborg?
Short answer, no.
“Development during early childhood demonstrates considerable plasticity, and ‘blips’ like this pandemic (even though this is a much longer blip than anyone had anticipated) are recoverable through their resilience,” says Dr. Erin Mueller, a psychologist and senior researcher at Parent Lab. Phew.
Kids are naturally pretty resilient, but there are also simple ways you can nurture this important skill.
And while yes, children search adults’ faces to see how they should interpret and react to things that happen throughout their day—especially kids with hearing and speech difficulties, experts say—there are many other ways they're developing these skills.
“It is important to remember children don’t just get cues from the face, but other cues as well,” says Neha Navsaria, PhD, assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Psychologist at Washington University School of Medicine and consultant at Parent Lab. Think: tone of voice, body language, eyes and more.
The goal for caregivers during this time is to focus on the other ways that kids might learn about emotions and words. Here are some ways you can help your toddler do exactly that:
Children should be taught to understand that a mask doesn’t take the compassionate expression away, says Dr. Navsaria. “At younger ages, children may concretely think that if they can’t see the expression, it is not there. A parent can help them understand this concept by taking their mask on and off.”
Children can be taught to pay more attention to tone of voice, eyes and eyebrows, touch, hands and body posture. Both Dr. Navsaria and Dr. Mueller tell us that this can be achieved through games or exercises. “Having the young child use their favorite stuffed animal to use as a way to talk about emotions and practice would be a fun way to learn,” suggests Dr. Mueller. And here’s another idea: Use some feeling cards to connect words to facial expressions (not only the mouth).
For children who need explicit instruction in speech and language therapy, showing children videos of the therapist saying target words could be helpful.
“Research tells us that it only takes one supportive caregiver in a child’s life to provide a significant contribution to their resilience,” says Dr. Navsaria. “Remember that children may have other caregivers in their life who are not masked (like their parents) who can still give them the cues and learning that they might not fully receive from a teacher or caregiver at school.”
Bottom line: This is a weird time, but the kids are going to be alright. Children are surprisingly resilient, and there are things that caregivers and parents can do to help ensure that young minds are still developing and growing appropriately. “The more I have thought about this, the more hopeful I have become,” Dr. Mueller says. “This is a learning opportunity for all of us to think a bit bigger about emotional expression and how it is much more than our smile or frown—it truly might have the positive outcome of having everyone more in touch with emotional expression!”
Who knows? Instead of emotional cyborgs, the next generation may be a bunch of highly attuned emotional geniuses.