You are the parent. You know your child best. That mean’s that there is a good chance that you will get a gut feeling when you know something is “not right” or “off” with your child and their mental health. Or perhaps your child is acting out in a way that you are no longer able to control. Whatever the case, knowing where to begin to ask for help is the first step. Getting an accurate mental health diagnosis for your child will strengthen your ability as a parent to get them the help they need.
Where to Begin?
When you decide that it is time to reach out for help for your child, chances are that you don’t want to have to wait for several months to be seen. A common myth is that you have to get a complex examination by a psychiatrist before you can get your child the help they need. The reality is to get help, you simply need to pick up the phone.
Your first call might be to your child’s pediatrician. They may have a therapist or other mental health provider that they recommend. You can also reach out to mental health providers in your area and schedule an initial visit. Most insurances do not actually require a referral from the primary physician. However, active communication between your child’s physician and therapist is highly recommended to ensure the best possible care.
Like I said before, help is just a phone call away. It is ok and normal to simply start talking with a therapist while you are still trying to determine your child’s mental health diagnosis. It will help your child AND you by simply knowing that you are no longer alone. And, based on information uncovered in sessions, your child’s therapist may be able to diagnose their disorder or they may recommend further testing.
How are Mental Health Diagnoses Determined in Children?
Working with children poses many challenges. One of those challenges is diagnosing. Unlike a broken arm or high cholesterol, there is no x-ray or lab test that can instantly identify your child’s mental health diagnosis.
To get an accurate mental health diagnosis, we have to look at information from parents and caregivers, schools, primary care physicians, psychiatric provider (psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner), therapists, and the children themselves. All of that information together allows your child’s mental health provider to determine their diagnosis using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5).
Discovering How Your Child is Feeling
Most adults have the ability to communicate and share how they are feeling. That makes it much easier to identify mental health disorders and get treatment. Kiddos, on the other hand, are often unable to verbalize their symptoms. They may also be unable to see if their behavior has become problematic. In addition, many symptoms that children present with often overlap with other diagnoses. For example, ADHD symptoms such as having difficulty concentrating, being easily distracted, and forgetful could also be a sign of anxiety in children.
So, how do we find out how your child is feeling or thinking without being able to ask? There are a couple of methods that work really well to uncover children’s mental health issues.
Using proven tests, a trained therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner can uncover a clearer picture to more accurately diagnose a mental health disorder(s).
Sometimes, it is necessary for two independent tests before a diagnosis can be confirmed. Think of it like a pregnancy test. If a woman believes she is pregnant, she might take a home test to check. Later, she may take another test to be sure the first was accurate. The second test affirms the results of the first. Then armed with the confidence in being pregnant or not, she can take the next steps. Psychological testing works the same way.
One tool that many therapists working with children use to gather information is play. Even though children often lack the ability to understand or communicate their feelings, they can still show us how they feel — just in a different way.
Play is the language of children. Using their language, it is much easier for children to open up about their thoughts, feeling, and struggles. A registered play therapist is able to use this information to determine a mental health disorder. After a diagnosis is made, children can also learn to develop their skills to better understand, communicate, and manage their emotions through play therapy.
What comes next?
After you have a diagnosis for your child you may feel relief. Relief that you can finally put a name to their struggle — and yours. With an accurate diagnosis, it will be easier to identify treatments that can help strengthen your child’s ability to cope with their mental illness.
Please note, if you feel your child has been inaccurately diagnosed, it is your right to seek out another opinion or advocate for further testing. As your child grows and matures, things can change. It is important to have an open line of communication with your child’s provider and let them know if changes occur.
Coordination of care between medical and mental healthcare providers helps ensure proper care. Part of having an accurate diagnosis means that it is easier to identify medication that can help your child. Not every child (or adult for that matter) needs medication to manage their mental health. Your child’s care team (and that includes you) will collaborate to determine the best tools for your child.
You are in charge.
Remember, you are your child’s best advocate, cheerleader, and protector. Ask for help and don’t stop until you get the care you need. You may also be surprised how quickly you can be seen by a therapist simply by taking that first step and making a call. At Covenant Family Solutions, we strive to make it possible for anyone needing care to be able to be seen within one week. You can request an appointment here or by calling the location nearest to you.