A Message from the Pacific Health Ministry Chaplaincy Team at Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women & Children, Chaplains Puanani Lalakea, Bora Kim and James Bell

COVID-19 has necessitated numerous changes; key among these is the way we communicate. We are all learning how to “touch” without touching and gather as a community when we are restricted from physically being in the same location. Then, of course, there are the masks.

Masks are difficult for all of us, but they present a particular challenge when working with children.

Wearing a mask can remove visual cues and distort the voice in ways that can make words difficult to understand. Children may find it more difficult to pay attention because it increases the mental energy needed to listen, especially when they are not feeling well or there is something else going on in the room. As a result, even when children can follow and understand what’s said, they may have fewer mental resources left to think about and recall what they heard.

How do we communicate effectively? To quote Ursula, the sea witch in the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, “Body language!”

When a child is scared, adults should come alongside that child. By covering our eyes and lifting one hand to cautiously peek out, we let the child know that it’s okay to be scared. We can also ask the child how he or she is feeling by scratching our temples or cocking our heads. Both of these actions help to convey a sense of curiosity and questioning. In addition, wrapping our arms around our bodies in a hug can help a child to feel our embrace, even from six-feet away. It’s amazing how much comfort and appreciation a child can feel through the simple and familiar gestures of putting one hand to our masks and extending it outward as if blowing a kiss.

Children are remarkable teachers. Learning how to communicate with them differently helps to remind us of the importance of child-like creativity and mental flexibility, especially as we try to figure out how to navigate this strange and unfamiliar territory.