RICHMOND, Va. -- The debate over masks in schools has Virginians divided following an executive order from Governor Glenn Youngkin. The order gives parents the option of whether they want their children to be masked in the classroom. As the action faces a legal battle, parents, teachers, and school leaders from all sides of the issue have publicly weighed in.
Now, mental health experts are warning of the impact these heated discussions can have on children.
While many children are hesitant to share their emotions, a 10-year-old boy in Chesterfield decided to express himself through art.
He drew a picture of himself wearing a mask, appearing to look defeated.
“It’s just how he’s looking down with his eyes closed," his mother Beth-Ann Permuy said. "It's just sad."
Permuy described her son, Tyler, as a typical boy who enjoyed sports and video games. When he shared the drawing with her, she said she couldn't help but feel heartbroken.
“It spoke very loudly to me that he was trying to tell me something or everybody something," Permuy said. "I wasn't paying close enough attention over the last two years as a parent, I guess, to see how he felt."
Permuy said her two children have been caught in the crossfire of a highly politicized debate over masks in schools She admitted that she and her husband have talked about the issue in front of their kids. With strong opinions swirling from adults, Permuy said that kids' voices and concerns have been ignored.
“Children just don't know how to express themselves the way we do, and there's some anxiety. They're scared," she said. "They've been tugged in a million different directions, and how can you not be confused and wonder when it's going to end?"
The revelations led her to have an important conversation with her kids, especially Tyler.
“I said, 'It says a lot to me, Tyler. I didn't know you were this stressed and this sad about it and about the arguments and the fears.' He said, 'I just want to be a kid again,'" Permuy said.
Child psychologist Dr. Sandy Henderson said some parents might not realize how their opinions impact their children.
“It’s really an unsettling time for kids right now," Henderson said. “They look to adults for their cues on what's okay in the world and how things work. They have one set of adults saying one thing and another set of adults saying another thing."
She agreed with Permuy's sentiment that children are confused.
"They are not knowing where to turn to look for safety, security, and guidance," Henderson said.
Henderson explained many children will internalize their feelings instead of sharing, but parents can open the door through conversation.
Younger children, she said, need to be reassured of safety.
"But also need to be really heard. 'What's on your mind. What's worrying you?'” she said.
And for adolescents who are beginning to shape their own views, she said, “They need to be also heard and validated. 'Yes, I hear you. Yes, I understand.' You don't have to agree with them.”
"In the midst of all this, one of the most powerful things is to maintain is your sense of humanity with each other. A sense of a commitment to decency, respect, and compassion goes so far," Henderson said.
Parents look for these signs to tell if their child is struggling mentally, according to Dr. Henderson:
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in eating patterns
- Inability to focus
- Disinterest in activities they usually enjoy
As Permuy prepared to send her children to school Thursday with a new policy in Chesterfield schools making masks optional, she said she's had conversations with them about how to treat others.
“I said to them, 'Listen, there's going to be kids with masks and without them. And I said, either way, it's okay,'" she said.
And she said if there's one thing that all parents can agree on, it isn't whether kids should wear a mask. It's that they want what's best for them.
“There's nobody that loves their kids more, or thinks they're more important, or worries about the more than their parents," Permuy said.
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