Taming my kids' irrational fears

Two hours before his operation last week, my son came to me with a pressing question: "Will they stitch me up?"

He was going for a minor procedure called turbinate reduction to trim these enlarged ridges of flesh in his nose, which serve to clean and humidify the air that passes through. The congenital condition had been restricting his oxygen intake and affecting his sleep and growth, among other things.

"Yes, of course," I replied in my best soothing mum voice. "They will do everything to make sure you heal quickly."

But I had misunderstood his fears.

Eyes widening in alarm, he yelped: "So everyone will see stitches on my face? Like Frankenstein?"

I had to laugh then. I was trying not to dwell on the risks of his impending surgery under general anaesthesia and the subsequent pain management. But all my eight-year-old could think about was his post-operative look.

One of the most fascinating - and at times frustrating - aspects of parenting is learning to tame the slew of unexpected or irrational fears that sometimes consume my kids.

An uneventful week after he started Primary 1 two years ago, my son suddenly had an attack of nerves.

I was puzzled. He had never shed a tear over school, even as a preschooler. Yet here he was, with anxiety etched all over his face.

I went through a list of possible reasons with him.

Has anyone been bullying you? No.

Are you scared of any teachers? No.

Are you having trouble buying or finishing your food during recess? No.

I thought I had covered all bases. What else could be causing him such distress?

Then he finally fed me a big clue as I was tucking him into bed one night.

"Mama, how do I get to the school hall?"

Ah, so that was it. For the first few days, the Primary 1 pupils gathered in their respective classrooms in the morning and had a Primary 4 buddy each to guide them during recess.

After that, they were expected to assemble in the hall before class and after recess every day.

"Are you having trouble finding your way around?" I was relieved it was a problem with an easy fix.

That was when the dam broke. As tears pooled in his eyes, my son told of how he had lost his way a few times in the strange, sprawling grounds and showed up late.

"It's so stressful, you know?"

I didn't. But I now know having kids means having to flex my empathy muscle and crack my head a lot more just to work out what could be bugging them. Often, they either can't or won't give me a straight answer.

I once nagged my son for weeks to clear up the mess on his bedside table to no avail. Then one night, I snapped. Irked by his defiance, I grabbed a fistful of the toys and strode towards the trash bin.

"They are there to protect me," he finally piped up. I heard the quiver in his voice and my heart twinged.

What to me was a haphazard heap of figurines was, in fact, a careful formation of toy robots and weapons that served as his talisman.

He had been plagued by dreams of terrorists smashing through our windows then. Arranging his favourite "fighter toys" - each stood at a different angle and adopted a different stance - gave him a sense of security that my soothing words could not.

The tricky thing is, kids go through phases marked by different preoccupations and idiosyncrasies. Even foolproof solutions that work wonders have short shelf lives.

My daughter had, for years, gone to bed happily after a tried-and- tested drill of a story, a cuddle and then a short exchange of sweet nothings.

But soon after she turned five last year, she began asking a question at the end of our bedtime routine.

"What if I want to talk to you later?" she asked one night.

My response was curt. "No more talking. Go to sleep." I couldn't wait to have the rest of the night to myself.

Her mouth drooped and the mood soured instantly. What followed was a protracted battle of wills that ended in tears and a deadlock. This went on for a few exhausting nights until I finally gave in.

"What if I want to talk to you later?" came the dreaded question.

"Okay," I said, then quickly added a caveat. "But I will come in only once. You have to go to sleep after that."

She agreed, went to bed wearing her impish grin and did not call for me again the rest of the night.

I could have saved us so much grief if I'd only known that "okay" was all she needed to hear.

It turned out she wasn't looking for a way to cling on to me, but was merely seeking assurance. If she needed me, she wanted to know that I would be there for her right away.

Soon, she will come up with another poser that will throw me off guard and one for which a simple "okay" will no longer suffice.

The challenge will, as usual, be interesting or vexing, or both.

But that's fine. For as all parents know, every day is a learning journey, humps, bumps and all.

And every day that we have with our kids is a gift.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Taming my kids' irrational fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe