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Mask mandates may affect a child’s emotional, intellectual development

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana’s new mask mandate may affect how people interpret emotional cues. Young children especially rely on facial expressions to understand situations. With face coverings, this may become increasingly difficult for them to learn what’s called “social attachment,” making them more vulnerable to feelings of mistrust and concerns for their safety.

News 8 spoke with Dr. Brett Enneking, child psychologist at Riley Children’s Health, to discuss the potential short and long-term effects face masks may have on children, which parts of the brain could be stunted as a result and what parents can do to prevent their child’s emotional and intellectual development delays.

To read the interview transcript, see below.

Gillis: Governor Holcomb issued a mask mandate for Indiana that goes into effect on Monday. And you’re saying there are potential negative side effects face coverings might have on child development. Are we talking socially, emotionally, intellectually? In what way might children be affected?

Enneking: The thing is we really don’t know for sure what the effect may or may not be. But what we do know is that children, especially in early childhood, they use the mouth as part of the entire face to get a sense of what’s going on around them in terms of adults and other people in their environment as far as their emotions. It also has a role in language development as well.

If you think about an infant, when you interact with them you use part of your mouth. They are interested in your facial expressions. And if you think about that part of the face being covered up, there is that possibility that it could have an effect. But we don’t know because this is really an unprecedented time. What we wonder about is if this could play a role and how can we stop it if it would affect child development. 

Gillis: Some new science to be explored…

Enneking: Yes, absolutely. I think part of it will be as time progresses and we look at the kids that are in early childhood–let’s say under age five right now–what is this going to be like when they are 10? If anything. And I think what we know from existing research is that children really are going to do the best with these unfamiliar situations if adults around them are supporting them and helping them navigate this unfamiliar territory. 

Gillis: We also talked about at one point a range of ages — as early as newborns to children aged 10 to 12. Can you explain which parts of the brain are impacted and what the short-term and long-term effects could possibly be?

Enneking: The area of the brain…and there are many involved in emotion regulation and our ability to process emotion…but the most common area associated with emotion–especially negative emotion–is the amygdala. 

What I would expect in terms of short-term and long-term effects would be that children might just learn different cues for processing emotions. So I think about when you’re interacting with your child and you’re smiling, your mouth obviously plays a big role, but your eyes do as well. So children as they get used to masks might just use the eyes a bit more as a cue for what emotion is going on behind the mask. 

However, this could be more difficult in situations where maybe the child is a little bit farther away from the person they are talking to. It’s a lot harder to see the eyes, for example, if you’re looking at someone across the room whereas if they are close, you might be able to use the eyes a little bit more to determine if this person is happy or not. 

In terms of short-term, children might be a little scared with new and unfamiliar people who are wearing masks. My daughter at day care is a great example. When I took her back — she’s fifteen months — and when I took her back to day care she initially was more nervous than she would have been otherwise because obviously all of the adults there were wearing masks and I was wearing a mask too as I was dropping her off. So she couldn’t look back and forth from my facial expression to their facial expressions to get a better sense of what was going on with us emotionally. What I did instead was verbally tell her “It’s OK” and “I’m right here” so she would have that verbal expression to accompany my facial expression. So I think we can expect those toddlers to be a bit more nervous in those unfamiliar situations when masks are required. 

In the long-term, I think we might expect more differences. I might use the eyes more and the rest of us might, too. But again, we don’t really know what those long-term effects might be. 

Gillis: Children over the age of two years old will also be wearing masks. That’s young and they might not have language skills just yet. Does it work both ways? Could there be communication problems when these children who might not have the language they need to communicate?

Enneking: I think that’s a great point. It’s interesting because kids in general struggle with that quite a bit more than adults do…understanding and expressing their emotions and it might be a challenge if they are wearing a face mask to accurately assess emotions, especially negative emotions. 

There’s a pretty big difference in our eyes when we are smiling versus when we are angry, but there might be a little more nuance. In general what I recommend for parents is if they’re seeing their child having an emotion and they are struggling to communicate, it’s always OK to use the situational context to try to ascertain what’s going on and then give them the language. An example might be: “I noticed Johnny just took the toy. I think you might be angry because he took the toy you were using.” So providing that language is a way to facilitate that emotional development. 

Gillis: Dr. Enneking. Thank you so much for joining us. Some interesting research to come.