Observing facial expressions and cues is a huge part of how our children learn to interact with their community and environment, associate visual cues with positive or negative emotions, identify speech patterns and draw associations between mouth movements and different phonetic sounds.
In 2013, scientists measured hemodynamic responses in infants’ brains using near-infrared spectroscopy and found that newborns possessed face-processing biases early in infancy. Infants showed a distinct preference for faces above all other images; and consistently displayed a bias towards familiar faces, e.g. their mother’s face, over other faces at one month old – which suggests that the ability to learn and remember faces is innate.
As some of us adults may have noticed, communication has not been a breeze whilst wearing masks. Whether it’s because the other party has an accent, or their speech has been muffled, or their expression is hidden, we’ve found ourselves straining to discern speech more often.
Likewise, children are experiencing the same difficulties and may be doubly frustrated because they place a huge emphasis on being heard and attended to. Parents and caregivers should take pains to slow down their speech, enunciate clearly and maintain eye contact throughout conversations.
Proper use of the mask requires one to fit the top around the bridge of the nose and extend it to the chin for a snug fit – when worn correctly, a mask obscures at least 45% of the face.
This new social norm significantly reduces the opportunities for children to learn from their visual experience. Depending on what stage of development your child is at, this could impede a child’s emotion recognition, understanding of social interactions and speech development.
Especially for young children, for whom the face is a key focal point of interest, parents and caregivers may note more distress, fussiness or restlessness, as they feel frustrated about the perceptual deprivation they are forced to accommodate. That said, experts do believe that children are highly adaptable and may emerge more perceptive to tone, body language and other cues to compensate for this lack.
Parents and caregivers should also note that children are less articulate at expressing themselves verbally – so check in ever so often with your child; and coach them on how they can perceive emotions by looking at the eyes, eyebrows or body language. Parents and caregivers may also find it useful to verbally articulate how they were feeling, e.g. “Just now mommy raised my voice at you because I was afraid you were going to jump off the slide. Mommy was worried.” This helps children in associating emotions with social situations.
With masks, parents and caregivers should also take the extra step of getting the child’s attention before starting conversation and maintain eye contact. This allows your child a small head start in catching onto any other visual cues that may be present.
In addition, parents should maximise any unmasked quality interaction time with their kids – be expressive, read them an exciting story or two. Experts recommend a minimum of 15 minutes of reading a day and encourage parents to be as dramatic as possible. Try to be as varied as possible with your expressions in the privacy of your home and match them with the corresponding tone and body language – this provides valuable visual and auditory experiences for your child.