You may be an abusive parent - and not even know it.
Awareness among Singaporeans on what qualifies as emotional abuse is still low, a new two-year study by the Singapore Children's Society (SCS) claims.
Emotionally abusive acts could include calling one's child 'useless' or not hugging the child, said researchers who compiled the list after reviewing child abuse cases here and overseas.
Such acts continue to be perceived by most people as less serious than acts of physical and sexual abuse, said the study.
Experts say emotional abuse is often a root cause of problems such as depression anxiety or eating disorders.
The findings, however, struck a nerve with some who question if it is fair to state that not hugging a child may be abusive.
The SCS has conducted similar studies in 1994 and 1997. The aim is to track shifts in perception on child abuse, and to promote greater awareness on the issue.
Experts say there is a greater consensus on what constitutes physical and sexual abuse, but less so for emotional maltreatment.
While the latest study showed that awareness on emotional abuse is low, it is higher than that shown by earlier SCS studies.
For example, in the 1997 survey, 27 per cent of respondents viewed calling a child 'useless' - a potentially abusive act as defined by the SCS - as abusive, compared to 38 per cent in the new survey.
Experts said one reason fewer adults viewed some acts as being abusive was that victims of emotional abuse often go undetected. Another reason is cultural: Asians tend to be less expressive and less likely to report such abuse.
Last year, there were five reported cases of child emotional abuse, compared to 47 for physical abuse, and 25 for sexual abuse.
The SCS survey, conducted in 2010 and last year, polled 500 members of the public and 1,155 professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, who deal with child abuse cases. They were asked to rate 18 acts - from tying a child up to never hugging a child - and decide if these may be abusive.
Social workers and psychologists The Straits Times spoke to said victims of emotional abuse often go unrecognized until other problems surface.
Ken Ung Eng Khean, a senior consultant at Adam Road Medical Centre, said that of the 70 child cases he sees monthly, most involve emotional abuse. Although the children see him for depression anxiety or eating disorders, emotional abuse is often a root cause of the problem, the psychiatrist said.
The tendency to seek help for more visible symptoms explains why reported cases of emotional abuse are 'the tip of the iceberg', said social worker Shannon Chew at Trans Safe Centre, a welfare group.
Psychologists here said the definition of emotional abuse has to be framed in a cultural context: Some Asians, for instance, are more reserved and do not hug.
But the SCS said parents not hugging their children can be a form of 'emotional neglect'.
The experts noted that being verbally critical is also more common in Asian societies. Geraldine Tan, a psychologist at the Centre for Effective Living, said: 'Teachers in the West instruct kids to report immediately if people lay a hand on them or spout verbal abuse... (but) in Asia, terms like 'silly' or 'stupid' are common.'
Michelle Ong, 38, who has two young sons, said indicators such as hugging may not be suitable in an Asian context. But the corporate communications manager has noticed more parents hugging their kids nowadays. She herself does it all the time. 'Life is a miracle, and hugs are a way of sharing my love for them.'