Perhaps the time has come for you to consider getting your child a professional mental health evaluation. Maybe you’ve noticed some worrisome signs in your child, or maybe another professional, such as a teacher or counselor, has expressed concern. Perhaps you’re wondering whether your child’s behavior or personality is a normal part of his/her development, or if something bigger is going on.
As a professional counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents, it’s not uncommon for me to have a parent who is considering getting their child or teen evaluated, but is unsure who to turn to, or what’s available. In the interest of shedding some light on this confusing process, I decided to reach out to a colleague of mine who has performed psychological testing on people of all ages, from young children to the elderly.
I asked him the questions that frustrated parents most often pose to me, and here are his answers:
- First of all, what kinds of evaluations are out there?
There are a number of different tools that we use in testing and evaluation. Some of these tests are screening tools designed to detect things such as depression, anxiety, or other behaviors that are of concern. Some measures provide a broad range of information about behavior and personality. In children, these measures often look at behavior, underlying emotional distress, relationships, and personality. Other measures are very specific and oftentimes look at one syndrome or area of functioning. For example, we have tests that provide an in-depth look at:
- Learning Disabilities
- Intellectual Strengths and Weaknesses
- Attentional Functioning (Such as assessment for ADHD)
- Symptoms Consistent with the Autism Spectrum
- Specific Mental Illnesses (such as Depression, Panic Disorder, OCD, and PTSD)
However, there is no tool more powerful than a well-gathered history. The person assessing you or your child should spend sufficient time with you discussing the case, your history, and what you hope to get out of testing.
- My child is only 3 – is he too young to be evaluated?
It really depends on the information you are wanting to gather. Academic and intellectual testing is challenging at this age, given the rapid growth young children undergo. By contrast, testing for Autism can be very beneficial at this age, given that these symptoms are prevalent by age 3. When in doubt about your child’s age and appropriateness for testing, it never hurts to ask!
- Is my teen too old to be assessed?
Absolutely not. Because teens’ personalities are not as solidified as that of people in their mid-20s and older, meaningful information about their personalities can be gleamed from testing. Testing can also provide the clinician with information about underlying stresses and thought processes, as teenagers may not be as insightful about their thoughts and behaviors as adults are. With teens, it is typically best to use tests that gather information from multiple different sources, such as from parents, teachers, or teens themselves.
- Who performs these tests and evaluations?
Evaluations should be performed by licensed mental health professionals (such as licensed professional counselors or psychologists) with training in assessment. This training typically comes from graduate level courses in assessment, continuing education on testing, as well as experience working in a team providing evaluations.
- How is a professional evaluation different from online tests I’ve taken?
Online symptom checkers can be helpful in guiding parents who are trying to determine whether or not their child’s behavior is normal, and whether or not they should seek help. However, unlike those checklists, professional tests have been well-studied and show that they produce stable, consistent results that can be trusted. The person who performs your test should be able to provide you with a comprehensive report that examines what is behind the symptoms, and what they mean, instead of simply confirming (or denying) a diagnosis.
- Does insurance pay for assessment?
It depends on the insurance company, the diagnoses presenting, and who is doing the testing. Typically, insurance companies will only pay for psychologists to provide testing services. Even then, some testing, such as to better understand your personality or testing for ADHD, may not be covered by your insurance. It is best to check your plan to see what your options are.
- May I be in the room when my child or teen is tested?
Typically, the child or teen should be alone. This is to reduce any interference, be it intentional or not, with the testing process. During testing, it is important that the person who is undergoing the evaluation not feel pressured to respond or perform in certain ways.
- What will happen if my child is diagnosed with something?
Diagnoses are useful for identifying issues in need of assistance and support. These diagnoses are often required for educational service plans (typically 504s) that allow students to access a wide range of accommodations in the classroom. Additionally, certain diagnoses can indicate to providers, such as counselors and doctors, what the standard course of treatment should be in a given situation. These standard treatments are often the ones that are best supported by research.
The idea of having your child diagnosed with a mental illness is scary, undoubtedly. You may be worried about assigning “labels” to your child. However, at least 25% of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point. Diagnosis can allow problems to come into the light and be discussed and treated, rather than letting those problems fester and grow without being addressed.
- I’m on the fence about getting my child/teen evaluated – what can help me decide for sure whether it’s needed?
Testing can provide additional information if you are unsure what is behind your child’s behavior. Perhaps at home, school, or in the therapy office, things are not changing and progressing in the way you were expecting. Testing is particularly useful in looking behind the curtain of the symptoms a child is showing in order to get some context or background for their occurrence. In many cases, schools will also require an assessment to qualify for certain services.
Cutter Roberts is a licensed professional counselor practicing at the Dallas Counseling and Treatment Center in Plano, Texas. Cutter has several years of experience performing a wide range of psychological and personality assessment services, both in clinical and private practice settings. He also provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and families. If you live in the Dallas area and are interested in seeking Cutter’s services, his bio and contact information can be found here.