As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world continues to rise, people are taking whatever steps they can to prevent contracting COVID-19. For now, the main expert is advice is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
While there are ways to cut down on the number of times you touch your face each day, breaking the habit is definitely a challenge for most people. Given the difficulty adults have, it seems like an utterly fruitless endeavour to get antsy kids to stop touching their faces.
“That is a tough one,” said cognitive scientist Denise Cummins when HuffPost asked if she had any advice for parents who want to encourage their children to kick the habit. “Trying to control children’s restless energy is often a fool’s errand.”
Still, there are small things parents can try. Below, find tips from Cummins and a couple of other experts on getting kids to stop touching their faces and how else they can stay healthy right now.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Kids tend to respond better to positive reinforcement than criticism or correction.
“Parents have to praise the child when they’re not doing it, which is more important than stopping them from doing it. ‘Great job keeping your hands away from your face’ actually goes a longer way than telling them to stop doing it,” said Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Institute of Southern California.
Parents can set up little incentives like stickers, toys, treats or even extra screen time to reward non-face-touching.
As DePompo noted, verbal affirmations also help reinforce good behaviours.
“By saying, ‘I like where your hands are’ when by their sides, or ‘I like that you’re not touching your face right now,’” they’re aware of what they should not be doing,” said Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist in New York.
Point Out When They’re Doing It
While positive reinforcement is key, parents can also help their kids become more aware of their face touching by simply pointing it out.
“It is going to be very difficult to get children to stop touching their faces altogether, but the same exercises that work for adults can work for children. The first being mindfulness,” Hafeez said.
“If you would remind a child every single time you see them touching their face, eventually it becomes a conditioned response where they will find themselves removing their hands from their faces,” she added.
Parents can also make their kids more aware of the goal to cut down on the habit by modelling it in their own behaviour. They can talk about the ways they’re trying to touch their own faces less and how they reward themselves when they achieve incremental goals to that end.
Give Them Something Else To Touch
As is the case with adults, kids who have their hands free may find themselves more tempted to touch their faces.
“I would just suggest giving them things to hold or fiddle with because holding and fiddling are incompatible with touching one’s face,” Cummins said. “It is always better to try to replace a problematic behaviour with another behaviour rather than asking children to NOT do something. Inhibiting actions is something that requires a fully functioning prefrontal cortex, and that is not fully developed until about age 25.”
Another recommendation for adults that can work for kids is to make face-touching uncomfortable. You can do this by putting their hands in fingerless gloves that don’t feel great against their skin or painting their nails with child-safe polishes that don’t taste good. But this may be more effort than it’s worth.
Explain The Concept Of Germs
“If a child is at least 3, you can start explaining the concept of germs and how they spread by touching your face, just like you explain to them the importance of sneezing into their elbows,” Hafeez said.
Indeed, there are many age-appropriate ways to educate kids about germs, including games and fun activities. Explaining the reasoning behind your request that they stop touching their faces involves them more in the process and gives them a vested interest in the goal.
Focus On Hand-Washing
Ultimately, remember that kids will be kids (i.e., germy, touchy little monsters), so don’t stress if they can’t miraculously start keeping their hands to themselves at all times.
“Little children touch things. Putting hands in mouths is what they do,” Mark Reinecke, clinical director and senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, told HuffPost.
Because it’s so difficult to curtail kids’ face-touching, it’s important to focus on healthy habits that are easier to control.
“What we probably should be doing is just encouraging young children to wash their hands regularly,” Reinecke explained. “Maybe get some disinfectant lotion or sanitiser and regularly put it on their hands. Hand them a Kleenex when they sneeze or have a runny nose.”
Teaching kids to wash their hands is a good practice that parents should be doing anyway, regardless of the news of an epidemic. Parents can also promote their children’s health by feeding them nutritious meals, giving them vitamins if it’s advised by their doctor, and encouraging physical activity and healthy amounts of sleep.
“Right now, there’s no need to be alarmist and say we need to vary significantly from normal and customary child-rearing practices,” Reinecke said.