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Psychological evaluations are not a form of indictment or judgment upon a teen’s personality or self. They are an important clinical tool for assessing a child’s wellbeing and psychological needs and represent a critical step towards getting them access to the care they need to live a better life. A psychological evaluation utilizes different tools to identify a teen’s need for treatment. They are no different from any other sort of medical diagnostic procedure. Understanding how these evaluations take place, how they might help your teen, and when they become something for parents to investigate can help you and your teen prepares for what might come next and assuage any fears or misconceptions.

What Is a Psychological Evaluation?

Plainly put, a psychological evaluation is a clinical step towards identifying behavioral, intellectual, psychological symptoms that may suggest a mental health issue and understanding the extent and nature of these symptoms. Teens can be volatile and experience many shifts in mood and thought during their pubescence and the years of early adulthood.

But there are still marked differences between normal teenage behavior and disordered thinking or behavior, characterized by disruptions in everyday life, troubles at home and in school, and clear signs of dysfunction and maladaptation. These evaluations are not about making children fit a mold or controlling a difficult child, but about getting hurt and confused child the help, they need to feel better and get better. It is about identifying and diagnosing disorders that require treatment and often respond best to treatment that is given early and swiftly.

It is about differentiating between typical behavior and thinking that might worsen a parent and symptoms of a serious mental health issue that could present a danger to the teen’s wellbeing. Psychological or psychiatric evaluations are always performed by a trained medical professional, usually a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist (the difference is that the latter is a medical doctor, but the former can still perform diagnoses).

When Is a Psychological Evaluation Necessary?

Psychological evaluations are usually the first step towards figuring out what might be going on with your teen. If your teenager is acting strange, has had a sudden change in mood and behavior, or continues to show signs of strange or irrational behavior for a consistent period across multiple settings (i.e., they are moody and irritable at home as well as at school, or have been struggling with low mood for multiple weeks without end, or have begun a streak of risky and dangerous behaviors despite clear consequences), then they may need help.

Some clearer signs that a teen might need a psychological evaluation include:

  • Self-imposed isolation.
  • Extreme worries and fears.
  • Unexplained physical pains and recurring headaches.
  • Rapid weight gain or weight loss, changes in appetite.
  • Risky behavior not tied to temperament, i.e., acting unusually carefree.
  • Often discussing or soliloquizing about suicide, death, and disappearing.
  • Trouble forming friendships and attachments, acting strange around others.
  • They no longer enjoy the things they used to enjoy without finding new hobbies.
  • Having difficulties with reality, making confusing or strange statements repeatedly.
  • Consistent and repeated nightmares and strange thoughts, delusions, hearing/seeing things.
  • Signs of substance abuse (late-night drinking, hiding drinking, drug paraphernalia, recreational prescription medication use).
  • There are sudden changes in memory and cognitive skills, trouble telling time and doing simple tasks, or trouble focusing on a single thing at a time.

What Can a Psychological Evaluation Tell Me About My Teen?

Psychological evaluations include a series of interviews, written tests, physical examinations, and neurological assessments to determine a teen’s overall physical and mental health and draw a comprehensive picture to help medical professionals trace their symptoms back to a plausible origin for treatment. Common elements of a complete psychological evaluation may include:

  • Asking questions about family dynamics and relationships at home and school.
  • A detailed family history, especially regarding psychiatric health, but also medical history.
  • Health history, including prior episodes or diagnoses, current and prior medication, previous health conditions.
  • Screening tests to determine behavioral and emotional health, physical health, neurological functioning, cognitive ability, and more.
  • Environmental details, including a teen’s home environment and upbringing, developmental history, instances of trauma or grief, and so on.

What is Teen Psychological Evaluations Like?

Psychological evaluations are meant to be neither overwhelming nor immediately intrusive. Most of the assessment takes place in the form of questions, whether they serve to learn more about a teen’s family history or determine their cognitive abilities and symptoms.

Evaluations usually start with the least serious and least intrusive question first – things like how the school has been, what kind of interests a teen has, whether they have been having trouble with their friends. Eventually, questions may delve into deeper self-harm and anxiety, sexuality and drug use, victimization, and family dynamics.

Gathering as much information as possible is important to rule out any number of potential causes for strange behavior, and symptoms, including simple explanations such as complex grief and anger at the loss of a loved one or physical conditions manifesting psychiatric symptoms.

Many psychiatric evaluations occur within a residential program, where parents can take their teens to seek both a diagnosis and a comprehensive treatment. Depending on how an assessment begins and transpires, multiple sessions might be needed for a professional to reach a conclusive diagnosis and prescribe the necessary treatments.

Main Types of Psychological Evaluation

Psychological evaluations can be split into four general types: an assessment of a teen’s behavior, an assessment of their temperament and environment, an assessment of their basic cognitive capabilities, and an assessment of applicable symptoms and potential disorders.

  • Behavioral Assessment. This process is used to assess a teen’s behavioral changes and draw a picture of how they respond to certain questions to get a clearer view of their mindset and emotions.
  • Personality Assessment. This process is used to learn more about a teen’s temperament and inclinations and how they are affected by their upbringing and environment.
  • Assessment of Intellectual Functioning. This process is used to test a teen’s cognitive function. It is generally used more often to diagnose potential cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s, or determine the extent of a stroke’s damage.
  • Clinical Interview. This is a general term for the appointments and questions centered around identifying symptoms and eventually diagnosing a potential disorder in teens with signs of serious mental health issues.

These four types are a rough summarization of the psychological evaluation. Medical professionals can go into thorough detail to finetune treatment and determine additional steps such as family therapy, career and life skills training, and more.

Where Can Psychological Evaluations Be Done?

Aside from previously mentioned treatment centers and residential programs, psychological evaluations can be referred by pediatricians or doctors through psychiatric practices. Other places that offer psychiatric evaluations include hospitals, home care services, nursing homes, care facilities, and outpatient program facilities.