Resources Blog How do I know if my child might need therapy or psychological testing?

How do I know if my child might need therapy or psychological testing?

Life is full of up and downs, and this can be especially true for our kids. We all have problems that arise in our lives, many of which we’re able to navigate through on our own or with the help of our family, friends, and community. While our support network is important, sometimes seeking professional help with a therapist is beneficial.
Last updated: June 24, 2021

When should I seek counseling for my child?

Therapy can be a place where a young person can discuss or express current problems that they might be having at home, at school, or with friends. Through counseling, a child can learn coping skills and ways to manage these difficulties.

Here are some indicators that you may want to seek help for your child or teen:

  • A problem is impacting how they are functioning in one or more areas of their life, such as home, school, or with friends.
  • Your child has had a significant behavioral change, such as increasing irritability or changes in eating, sleeping, and how they spend their time.
  • Your child or adolescent is withdrawing from social activities that they used to enjoy.
  • Your child expresses excessive worries.
  • Your child is having thoughts of or engaging in self-harm.
  • Your child is struggling with substance use.
  • Your child expresses hopelessness or passive thoughts of suicide (e.g., “I don’t want to be here”).
  • Your child talks about suicide.

If you have concerns, reach out to a school counselor, primary care physician, or therapist. Or call Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Connections (CAYAC) at 970-221-3308.

What defines typical vs. atypical behavior in children?

The somewhat unsatisfactory answer to this question is “that depends.” However, there are some general criteria that can help you determine if the behavior you are seeing from your child or teen falls into a “normal” range.

First, although there is no true definition of “normal,” behavior that violates social norms can be seen as abnormal. Age can play a large role in this. A screaming tantrum from a three-year-old at a restaurant may get you some understanding smiles, but a similar tantrum from a fourteen-year-old could be considered atypical developmental behavior. Another criterion for atypical behavior is whether the behavior causes significant distress for the child. For instance, although we all experience stress and anxiety to some degree, if a child’s anxiety impacts their ability to sleep, eat, or have fun with friends, then it is likely causing significant distress.

Atypical behavior can also be indicated based on the persistence, patterns, or increase of behaviors versus a behavior that occurs only once. These behaviors can then be looked at on a continuum of mild, moderate, or severe symptoms or concerns. Finally, ask yourself whether the behavior could hurt the young person or someone else, such as drug use, vandalism, or self-harm.

If you’re unsure whether your child’s behavior meets the above criteria, reach out to your child’s school counselor, primary care physician, or therapist. Or contact CAYAC, 970-221-3308, to discuss interventions to best support your child or teen.

Does my child need testing to get a diagnosis?

Not necessarily. Most often, a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can make a diagnosis based on their understanding of the child’s background and history, as well as their observations of the child’s behaviors. However, when these professionals feel like they don’t have enough information to rule out other explanations, psychological evaluations are necessary for diagnostic clarification.

Psychologists administer tests for a variety of reasons. For example, depending on history and context, there may be multiple explanations for why a child is having difficulties in school. In the evaluation process, a psychologist identifies all of the factors that may be contributing to the child’s problem. In addition to a clinical interview, tests may be included that examine a child’s cognitive and attentional abilities, personality, emotional state, learning disabilities, dexterity, etc. All of this information can be used to better understand what might be getting in the way of a child’s learning and how the family, or other professionals, can help.

It’s important to note that psychological testing can be time-intensive and expensive. Since most children don’t need testing to obtain a diagnosis and treatment recommendations, testing may be an unnecessary expense. Treatment for children is often geared toward addressing their symptoms or behaviors, so a specific diagnosis may not be needed. Similar to when a patient is treated at a doctor’s office, the physician doesn't necessarily need to know the specific bacteria causing an infection to prescribe antibiotics to help the patient feel better. But if the patient doesn't respond to the antibiotics (i.e., the recommended treatment), then further testing may help to better understand the cause. Since many psychological treatments (like individual therapy or learning accommodations) can be used for a variety of behaviors in children, sometimes it’s best to have a child participate in consistent, ongoing treatment before considering a full evaluation.

Local resources

Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Connections (CAYAC) serves Larimer County youth through age 18, as well as their families. Our goal is the early identification and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders that can affect health, happiness, family, and school. Call 970-221-3308; services by appointment. Some services are free, and some are available on a sliding-scale basis.