What’s in a label? Should I get a diagnosis for my child?
‘Labelling a child’ is the term used to describe the process where a psychologist or psychiatrist assesses a child, resulting in a diagnosis or ‘label’. The diagnosis is based on a set of criteria defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).
About 10% of children and young people will have a mental health problem. The most common diagnoses for children include anxiety disorders; attention-deficit and disruptive behavior disorders; autism spectrum disorders; and eating disorders (for example, anorexia nervosa).
If you suspect your child may have a mental health condition, chances are you’ve wondered if it’s beneficial to obtain a professional opinion and perhaps a diagnosis. While professionals were traditionally hesitant to diagnose pre-adolescents with DSM-IV conditions, diagnoses have been on the rise since the 1980s, partly as a result of greater research into child mental health.
What is a diagnosis?
A reputable mental health professional will not give a diagnosis without a thorough evaluation of a person’s symptoms, behaviours, and developmental history. In the case of a child, specialists will usually consult with several other sources (for example, parents, teachers, and family doctors) before confirming a diagnosis.
What are the advantages of a diagnosis?
An accurate diagnosis will give parents and their child a clear and realistic sense of the limitations and challenges the child may face as a result of the disorder. Following a diagnosis, you should also have a good sense of what treatment plans are available, their pros and cons, and how effective they are. This knowledge can provide tremendous peace of mind for families who are struggling.
Other advantages of a diagnosis include:
- An accurate understanding of your child’s strengths and how to best harness them.
- Individual support from Specialists at your child’s school (for example, regular hours with a Learning Support teacher or funding for resources or appropriate training for teachers).
- Subsidized help for the family (for example, home-based intervention such as ABA for children with autism spectrum disorders).
- Effective collaboration between health professionals. For example, a Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist and Psychologist can work together to give your child comprehensive treatment.
What are the disadvantages of a diagnosis?
Most professionals agree: forming a diagnosis can be difficult. A child’s behaviour can change depending on their environment, their food intake and the people around them, which can impact the assessment process.
The disadvantages of a diagnosis may include:
- Stigma from other parents or peers.
- Difficulties reversing the diagnosis should behaviour change or improve.
- Children need support when discussing a diagnosis.
- Some families might find a thorough assessment and Diagnostic Report costly.
Finding more support:
Quirky Kid has offices in Sydney and Wollongong,
If you are concerned as to whether or not obtaining a diagnosis for your child is right for your family, you may find it helpful to talk through the decision with a professional yourself. Ask your health care provider about counselling or support services in your community or contact Quirky Kid on +61 2 9362 9297.
Parents may find useful resources at the Quirky Kid Shoppe.
National Institute for Mental Health in England (2008). The Mental Health Act: Essential Information for Parents and Caregivers.
Harakavy-Friedman, Jill M (2009). Dimensional Approaches in Diagnostic Classification: Refining the Research Agenda for DSM-V. American Journal of Psychiatry 166, 118-119
Kimberley O’Brien (2011). Interview on the advantages, disadvantages, benefits and challenges of diagnosing children.
The Cleveland Clinic (2005-2009). “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Attention_Deficit_Hyperactivity_Disorder/hic_Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity_Disorder.aspx. Retrieved September 24, 2011.}