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To Test or Not to Test: Psychological Assessment for Children

To Test or Not to Test

Psychological Assessment for Children

With the rise of genetic screening and other advanced diagnostics, we are increasingly asked to consider how much we really want to know about what lies within us. As parents, we face a similar question: whether to uncover, through psychological testing, what may actually be happening in the brains of our children. 

While it may seem obvious to move forward with testing when we are concerned about our child, some parents find that the answer is not so simple. We may dread the stigma of attaching a diagnosis to a child, particularly if the treatment is billed to health insurance, creating, we fear, a permanent record. We may believe it is detrimental for the child to be “labeled”, or for her to internalize the notion that her capabilities are limited in any way. It may also strike us as cold or uncaring to hear our son or daughter’s characteristics described in objective, scientific language. Yes, testing can engender anxiety and resistance in parents, the results challenging us to test the boundaries of what we believe to be true about our children and, in turn, ourselves. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary—in fact, it is crucial, as discussed below.

Let’s take the example of a school-aged child who has difficulty making friends, still struggles to tie her shoes, and “melts down” when stressed. This child shows signs of autism, but because she looks her mother in the eye and is physically affectionate, her mother doesn’t recognize a developmental issue at hand, viewing her daughter, instead, as “sensitive” or “willful.” The discovery that the child has autism-spectrum disorder may cause the mother to feel guilt, anger, and shame. She may even resist the diagnosis, fearing what it may mean for her daughter’s future. 

All of these reactions are natural. And regardless of the concerns it may bring up, the research is clear: testing is absolutely essential to determining what is going on with a child who appears to be struggling. With the help of psychological testing, a psychologist can differentiate situational trauma, emotional distress, behavioral issues, or a neurological/developmental disorder requiring intervention. Indeed, studies show that children who are raised with an undiagnosed mental-health or developmental issue fare far more poorly than those who have been diagnosed. The findings are unambiguous: no matter the diagnosis, parents do better, children do better, everyone does better when the diagnosis is known.

Above all, the most important thing I tell parents who are considering psychological testing for their child is a truth both obvious and profound: your child is the same child no matter what her diagnosis. Just as you are still you if diagnosed with diabetes, so your child will still have the same collection of beautiful, frustrating, astonishing traits for which you love him. You will just be given the gift of understanding him better, and, in turn, learning how to help him understand himself.