Teaching a kid to cover their mouth when coughing. This is an image of a boy coughing.

Teaching Children to Cover their Mouths Before Coughing

Recently, I observed a parent tell their child to cover their mouth when the child coughed. No big deal. Here is the issue though: in about an hour time frame she told him 15 times. Not once did the child cover his mouth. He simply ignored her.

What went wrong? Why could she not teach her son this simple skill?

There are two issues here: No shared control and no consequence.

Sharing Control

How many of us like to be TOLD what to do? Not me. So how about instead of mom giving a command “cover your mouth” she says “so sad about your cough (empathy) what do you want to do next time you have to cough, cover your mouth or cough in the inside of your elbow? If the child chooses one of the two options, the odds go up that he will actually do one of those good choices. Shared control can also be used with the tool “ownership of the problem”. Here are the steps to hand this problem back to the child:

  1. Empathetic response such as, “So sad about your cough…”
  2. Ask: “What do you think you can do to not put all you germs on others?”
  3. Ask: “Do you want some ideas?”
  4. Allow the child to decide from one of the ideas you both come up with.

Now IF the child engages in the brainstorming, the odds will go up that he will cover his mouth. The great thing about this approach of shared control is that when the child does engage with the better choice, you get to give a lot of praise! The child grows in relationship with you and in self-confidence.


We learn through experience, how many of you refrain from speeding because you got a speeding ticket once? I sure do.

Kids need an experience that teaches them what to do and what not to do. It’s actions that turn our words into gold. So what would this look like for our coughing child?

Time Out

It’s simple. They are sent to time out for not covering their mouth. It is not our first choice but it will work. Jim Fay from the Love and Logic Institute always shares that a parent can use time out for ANYTHING you don’t like. Here is what it looks like:

[Johnny coughs without covering their mouth.]

Parent: “Johnny, please cover your mouth next time you cough, germs go on other people.”

[Johnny coughs again and does not cover their mouth.]

Parent: “Uh-oh time to go to time-out for not covering your mouth” (here are suggested steps to time out.)

One More Thing

Sometimes kids need training to help them learn to cover their mouth, especially with brain-stem reactions. Coughing is natural response to keep the airway clear. So a child might need to practice covering their mouth and brainstorming how it feels when a cough is coming on so that they can cover their mouth. This is another time that “Ownership of the Problem” can be used. Have fun with this!

If you are interested in this post, you may also like:

Past post: 2 Parenting Tips to Make Sick Child Care Easier

Additional Resources: The Life Saver Kit (CD), When Kids Drain Your Energy (CD), Painless Parenting for the Preschool Years (DVD)

3 thoughts on “Teaching Children to Cover their Mouths Before Coughing”

  1. As a preschool teacher, one thing I notice is that children who cough are often distracted by feeling unwell, and covering a cough is difficult to learn quickly at that time. Consequences are rarely needed for a behavior that has no motivation to harm others. Unless a child coughs in a particularly gross manner, a nudge of the elbow toward the mouth and a calm reminder to “cover your cough” will do.
    Also, a great tip for teaching this social skill is to 1) put a band-aid or sticker on the inside of the child’s arm/shirt as a sort of “bulls-eye”. And 2) put one on a teddy bear for the child to teach the skill to. This will cement the knowledge into the memory.
    Personally, I would rather see parents focus on habitual nose-picking! I have been handed a few lovely “presents” by children who thought I would welcome anything they gave me! Ha Ha, silly little people :).

  2. I dont like they time out. I really don’t like the counting to three. I do like the option of saying we don’t want to spread our germs so we can cover our mouths like this when we cough or cough in the bend of your arm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *