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5 Steps Every Parent Should Take Before Assessing Their Child for a Mental Health Disorder

Let's face it; we all are guilty of using psychological language to label our children's' behaviors. It is not meant to be harmful or malicious, however, the sudden increase in mental health diagnosis in children is forcing to take a hard look at what options we take as parents.
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Vector illustration of Child head with education icons
Vector illustration of Child head with education icons

Let's face it; we all are guilty of using psychological language to label our children's behaviors. It is not meant to be harmful or malicious, however, the sudden increase in mental health diagnosis in children is forcing to take a hard look at what options we take as parents. Research has shown that AHDH is diagnosed in 1/10 children, Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed in 1 out of 54 school-aged-boys, and mood disorders have increased by 40% in the last decade. Why the sudden surge?

Educators, administrators, and parents have become casual about incorporating mental health language in everyday life. Over-diagnosis in our school systems has paved the way to medicate and abnormalize children's normal behavior. It is common for parents to categorize their child's behavior in order to control it. Consequently, it is easy to forget that a mental diagnosis will follow children into adulthood. The label and the experience that comes with the disorder are irreversible. Mental health diagnoses are important and can be very helpful, and you want your child to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder if he/she really has one.

Imagine this...

Joey a sweet shy boy in the fourth grade is dozing off while his teacher explains the newest multiplication method. Joey's teacher notices his lack of attention, but does not have the time or the patience to pause her lesson.

Fast-forward a few months. Joey is behind in his multiplication, which leads him to decline in the following math lessons. His teacher has to deal with budget cuts, large classroom sizes, and the pressure to meet the elementary school standards. She calls Joey's mom to tell her that her son must have ADHD, a learning disorder, or some disorder to explain why he is behind in her class.

Mom is now worried about Joey, and wants to find an answer. What mom doesn't know is math is taught right after lunch, and Joey usually feels sleepy after playing on the yard.

How can we stop ourselves from racing to diagnose our children? Over the past 4 years I have worked in various labs at UCLA, looking at children with developmental disorders. In addition, I partnered with educators in different school districts, to formulate a list of 5 essential steps you can take before assessing your kids for a mental health diagnosis.

1) Pause and trust your intuition: It is easy to get carried away into psychological jargon and become blind to typical child development and common sense. First take a pause, and think of yourself when you were your child's age. The perspective shift is always helpful in gaining clarity and trusting your parental instinct.

2) Examine your expectations: With the constant pressure to do better and be better, parents unconsciously put expectations onto their children. Remember that there is variation in the rate children develop socially, emotionally, and academically. Embrace your children's uniqueness and let them flourish at their own pace.

3) Talk to your child: Most of the time problem behaviors are communicating something. Parents forget that children, no matter how young, are aware that something is going on. Ask your child how they feel about school, and why they feel behind. You may be pleasantly surprised at the insight they have into their own lives.

4) Talk to your child's teacher: Teachers suggest that parents stay in contact and follow up after parent teacher meetings. Sometimes a child's troubles mean he/she is slow to mature in a certain area and will do fine with some adjustments. Remain in contact with your child's teacher, and develop a plan together.

5) Go to a licensed psychologist: I get it... you are comfortable with your pediatrician because they know you and your child. However, your pediatrician has been trained to look at your child from a medical standpoint, if you want a more accurate diagnosis, go to a licensed psychologist to get the proper testing.

Parents' care can translate into worry, and children pick worry up from miles away. Education systems are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have, and as a parent you want to make the most informed decision for your child. Take a moment, trust your instinct, and respond to the situation. Remember your child is unique, and there is no one else like them.