The great mask debate: how to deal with bullying over face masks in school

Woman fixing mask on child
Battles about the best ways to stop the the spread of COVID-19 include backlash over sending children to school in masks. (Image: Adobe Stock)

As the war against COVID-19 rages on, so do the battles about the best ways to stop the spread. And, as some families are finding, these battles include backlash over the decision of whether to send their children to school in masks.

“Like many aspects of the pandemic, masks have become a polarizing issue, and unfortunately, disagreements about them have spilled over into schools,” says Erica Lee, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Depending on your school district, masks may be required. Still, for those living in areas where masks are optional, students may feel pressure to either wear a mask or not wear one. Their choice has sometimes led to “mask bullying” by those making the opposite choice. Mask bullying tends to fall under the category of “appearance” as a reason a child is harassed, as — depending on the school’s mandate and majority — wearing or not wearing a mask makes them stand out from their peers.

Regardless of what side of the mask debate you’re on, Lee offers a few suggestions to help kids deal with potential bullying as well as tips to educate them on how to prevent bullying of other students.

Lead by example

Lee suggests explaining why your family has decided that wearing or not wearing a mask at school is best and setting clear expectations for your kids’ behavior. She also recommends limiting how much you vocalize your own personal opinions or say negative things about other parents or other people’s decisions if they differ from yours.

“Kids take their emotional and behavioral cues from parents and may feel confused or anxious about the ‘right’ way to think or act in the situation,” she says.

Communicate empathy

Help your child understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many unknowns, and everyone is just trying to do what they think is best for their families.

“Try to emphasize that we never know what is going on in someone else’s home or family and what other people’s risk factors are,” says Lee. “So, another child’s decision to wear or not wear a mask is a choice they make that best meets their situation. Though your family may choose a different path, the more important thing is what your child is doing to stay safe despite what others are doing.”

Every child has the right to feel safe and supported in school…At the end of the day, they should know that their education should be the focus, not their appearance or personal health decisions.”

Erica Lee, PhD

Teach them to refocus and reframe

If your child feels self-conscious about their decision to wear a mask, help them verbalize their reasons, Lee suggests.

“You can role-play what they will say if someone asks why they’re wearing a mask or teases them about it. Help them practice responding directly without giving it too much attention by saying something like, ‘I feel safer wearing a mask at school; what do you want to do at recess today?”

Teach them to be an upstander

Studies have shown that being a bystander to bullying behavior has similar adverse effects on a young person as those bullied. Other studies have shown that when students truly believe they can make a difference, they’re more likely to intervene against bullying.

Lee advises harnessing these findings to teach children it’s important to speak to a teacher or other adult should they feel bullied or see another student being harassed.

Lee stresses the importance of getting schools involved.

“School staff and administration should be already be promoting a culture of respect and acceptance that includes mask-wearing,” she says.

“If you or your child feels they’re being bullied, their teachers are the first line of defense.”

If your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to their teacher, she suggests encouraging them to find another trusted adult at school or to brainstorm next steps with you.

Know your rights

Many states have anti-bullying laws in place to prevent bullying in schools. These laws require public and private schools to develop, adhere to, and update bullying prevention and intervention plans. Some states require schools to make their plan accessible online.

Lee encourages parents to become familiar with their state’s laws, including the ramifications schools face should they not adhere to them.

“Every child has the right to feel safe and supported in school,” Lee says. “At the end of the day, they should know that their education should be the focus, not their appearance or personal health decisions. Our job as caring adults should be demonstrating that people can disagree about important topics and still be respectful of one another.”

Learn more about how Boston Children’s Hospital is helping to combat bullying, as well as how we are leading the way in clinical care, education, research, and advocacy for the mental health of children and families.

Share this: