Finding the Right Diagnosis for Your Teen

Believe it or not, sometimes psychologists and therapists can be wrong. You might take your teen to a mental health professional and discover that the diagnosis that he or she provided, just isn’t right. Of course, you know your child best, and the therapist is relying upon his or her knowledge of certain diagnoses, but that therapist likely won’t know your teen as well as you do.


It might seem obvious, but discovering the right diagnosis is essential. Everything else – medication, therapy, interventions, and treatment in general – depends on it. It is easy to mistake Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, which is a combination of attention deficit and hyperactivity, with Bipolar Disorder, for example, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder with Bipolar. Getting the right diagnosis sets the foundation for the future. That is, it will determine how you will respond to your teen, manage his or her behaviors, and most importantly, acquire the most effective treatment (medication, therapy, and other therapeutic interventions).


As you move through this process, be patient. Getting an accurate diagnosis is an evolution of sorting through information that changes as your teenager continues to develop. Yet, perhaps, as a parent of a teenager, patience is the one virtue you know well. For instance, like, Julie’s mother, you might have been trying to acquire a diagnosis since your teen was a young child. Julie, now age 15, has been in and out of therapy since she was eight years old. At first, when she exhibited high energy, angry outbursts, an inability to focus in school, and a pattern of cutting her wrists, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and recurrent depression.


At one point in her childhood, her pediatrician also diagnosed her with ADHD and prescribed the stimulant Adderall. The medication helped Julie with her ability to focus but she also became more irritable and agitated, which led to an increase in cutting and angry outbursts. Julie’s mother continued to encounter professionals who provided her daughter with inaccurate diagnoses and, as a result, medication that did not work.


If you can relate to this experience, the best thing you can do is to obtain for your teenager a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation from a board certified psychiatrist. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that if your child exhibits signs of depression, mania, or both, then you may want to find a psychiatrist that specializes in mood disorders, particularly in adolescence. Traditionally, the field of psychology saw major mood disorders occurring in adults only. However, today, those disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, are seen in adolescents. In fact, recent studies have found that as many as 15%-18% of teens have experienced a mood episode by age 18.  A mood episode is either an experience of a very low mood, such as depression, or a very high mood, such as mania. A mood disorder is one that affects an individual’s mood or emotions.


Dr. Vilma Gabbay, Director of the Pediatric Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Mount Sinai Hospital points out that “The risk factors are a family history of mood disorders, a tendency toward anxiety, and stressors like trauma and bullying. Stress itself can trigger a mood disorder, not in everyone, but in many teens.”


Dr. Vilma Gabbay also makes the following recommendations for parents of teens who exhibit signs of a mental illness:

  • Look at The National Alliance for Mental Illness website ( for excellent information on mental illness.
  • Don’t be ashamed of mental illness. Instead, focus on getting the help you need. “A psychiatric disorder is a medical disorder that can kill,” says Gabbay. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but parents and teens need to seek help.”
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is an essential component to mental health. Sleep deprivation is associated with mood disorders, so be sure to get at least eight hours of sleep a night.
  • Exercising for 20-30 minutes, four to five times a week, and staying away from drugs and alcohol can help prevent depressive and manic episodes.


Yet, if you’re still searching for the right diagnosis for your teen, schedule a psychiatric evaluation from a board certified psychiatrist today.