Does your child need a psychological assessment?

As a psychologist doing therapy and psychological assessments (also called psychological evaluations) with children, I often have parents asking me when they should seek a psychological assessment for their child. These are some considerations that may help clarify when a psychological assessment is needed:

1)    Your child is struggling; you tried different ways to address your child’s difficulties, but you feel things are not improving. For example, your child may have trouble controlling his emotions and this is particularly evident in school, where he gests easily frustrated, does not complete his work and gets in trouble for not following directions. You may have tried talking with his teacher and school counselor, helping him with his homework at home, seeking counseling for him, but he still struggles with the same issues. In order to effectively help your child, you may need to first understand what is at the root of his problems. His difficulty with controlling emotions in school may be due to different reasons. A psychological assessment will help clarify the factors driving your child’s behaviors. For instance, your child may get easily frustrated in school because he has a learning problem, which prevents him from being successful in class and may lead to anger and sadness. Or your child may struggle with focusing and concentrating in class, so that he cannot learn the school materials and this also may lead to frustration. Another possibility is that your child may be overly anxious about doing homework well, therefore getting frustrated about every mistake he makes in class and becoming overwhelmed. A comprehensive psychological assessment gathers information from multiple sources and employs multiple methods (such as testing, direct observations, interviews), to evaluate all of these hypotheses and identify the factors (cognitive, emotional, environmental) that are more likely related to your child’s struggles.

2)    Caregivers may request a psychological assessment because they seek information on the effect that an event may have had on their child. For example, when a child experienced a traumatic or difficult event (such as witnessing/experiencing abuse, losing a loved one), the caregivers may observe changes in their child’s behaviors. They may wonder if these changes are temporary or if the child is developing a clinical problem requiring specific strategies. A psychological assessment can explore the emotional wellbeing of the child and her cognitive functioning, therefore helping caregivers identify the best ways to address the aftermath of the trauma.

3)    Other times caregivers wonder if the difficulties they see in their child are part of the child’s development and will be outgrown over time, or if they are the consequence of some specific condition the child has. A psychological assessment will clarify if the child meets developmental milestones in different areas (such as cognitive, emotional, social) and how to understand the child’s difficulties. Whether or not the psychological assessment determines that the child meets criteria for a clinical disorder, the assessment will offer recommendations that help target the child and caregiver’s problems.