“We already know that children with delayed or developmental problems are at a 1.7 times greater risk for abuse than children without disabilities. In this study we wanted to investigate areas of parent’s behavior or reaction that might increase the risk,” lead study author Debra Zand, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University (SLU), said in a July 14 news release.

Zand and her colleagues from SLU recruited a group of 67 parents of diverse races and educational and economic backgrounds. All had children with disabilities.

The researchers found that many of the parents had high expectations for their children that would lead to them ask their kids to achieve more than they were capable of achieving. In addition, they saw parents who did not have empathy for their kid’s needs as much as typically developing children and therefore might not understand the feelings of their children.

Zand explained that the parents of children with developmental disabilities often felt stressed and frustrated when their children did not live up to their expectations. These feelings and attitudes, they suggested, lead to a higher risk of abusive behavior – emotional and/or physical – toward the child.

Zand also noted that while it is acceptable to push children a little out of their comfort zone to help them grow, it is also important for parents to recognize and acknowledge their children’s limitations.

The study authors believe pediatricians need to assess and identify the attitudes of parents to determine if there are negative feelings or an increased risk of abuse that could hinder children from reaching their full potential. The researchers see the pediatrician’s role as one of educating parents about healthy ways to deal with the needs of their children.

“It can be an interactive session in which parents can ask pediatricians suggestions on how to make the situation better for the children,” Zand said. “In addition to all this, parents need to find strong social support groups and engage in activities that help them to be happy and feel competent,” she added.