Master Masking – why children hide their feelings

What is a master masker? For those who have attended any of my training or the Level 4 Diploma in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Coaching, I often talk about children who are ‘Master Maskers’.

There is often a misconception, that children SHOW us their emotions, and this can cause a conflict between home and care/education settings, as the child’s presentation is different.

What is masking?

Masking is also referred to as ‘camouflage’ and is a technique used by children (and adults), by which they suffocate and internalise their emotions so as not to draw attention to themselves. Children who mask can be high performing at school and yet, internally, be feeling like the world is collapsing around them. Masking allows them to drift into the background and not draw attention to themselves, however it has consequences for mental health and well-being.

Masking is often spoken about, in relation to autism, however any child can mask, and it is often also associated with children with anxiety, depression and additional needs.

Why does masking happen?

Masking can be both conscious and unconscious, and is used as a defence mechanism, to prevent the outside world seeing our vulnerabilities. It can occur:

  • because in the past we have had poor experiences of support
  • because we are unsure if we can trust those around us to help
  • because we have been shamed or embarrassed for not coping previously
  • because we are scared of people’s reactions
  • because we want to fit in
  • because we do not want to be seen as different to others
  • because our needs are not being met in our care or education setting

What happens at home?

For the child who has mastered masking, having held their emotions in all day, on stepping into the safety of home and the presence of their most trusted people (parents/carers) the pressure of holding everything in releases. This is what we refer to as ‘decompression’ or ‘restraint collapse’ (read here). This can look like:

  • Isolating ourselves in our bedrooms
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Frustration
  • Tears
  • Meltdowns (dysregulation)
  • Panic attacks
  • Tics

As the child attempts to process and work through every situation and emotion that they have experienced during the day.

Why don’t we pick this up?

From the 20 something years I have committed to care, education and therapy, the simple answer to this, is a lack of education and awareness. When a child is high functioning (albeit special education needs or anxiety or depression) and ticks the boxes for educational milestones, development milestones and behaviour expectations, they frequently go unseen. On the surface, they are the duck on the pond, serene and calm, but under the water their feet are moving ten to the dozen. Struggling to keep up.

No matter how many yellow t-shirts or posters we might promote for mental health awareness, a greater understanding of masking and it’s impact on child mental health would be game changing for:

  • improving mental health support
  • building trusting relationships with children
  • building partnerships with parents
  • supporting children to develop regulation strategies
  • putting in place effective interventions

What can we do?

  1. Educate ourselves about mental health – learning to understand how children’s brains function and the impact of anxiety and stress on their bodies and minds.
  2. Integrate regulation strategies into our timetables – taking 2-3 minutes a few times a day to implement regulation strategies creates an inclusive environment
  3. Create safe spaces – have designated, well trained individuals who understand child and adolescent mental health in nurseries, schools and colleges who cam implement care plans and support
  4. Work collaboratively with parents – Parents know their children and when we work with them, and listen to what is happening at home, we can create more trusting and supportive environments

Want to learn more? 

If you want to learn more about emotional literacy you can join our Level 4 training (here) or keep an eye out for our online emotional literacy courses coming soon (here).


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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – COURSES 

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit –RESOURCES 

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