Psychological testing and assessment of families is an essential part of a parenting evaluator’s job, as well as important for informing clinicians on how to approach treatment. What types of assessments do mental health providers do?
Psychological testing has been used to assess personality shortcomings and strengths that inform whether one parent is, or could be essentially “better” than another could. Personality tests can be useful for clinicians working with individual clients to determine whether they have mental health problems, such as depression, for which they may need treatment. However, critics have argued that tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), or the NEO Personality Inventory, which are commonly used to assess parent’s emotional adjustment, are not reliable when used for purposes they were not designed to do. In other words, personality and emotional adjustment does not necessarily indicate whether one person will be a better parent than another will.
Parenting testing is another form of assessment that looks at the skills and deficits of parents. For example, the Child Abuse Potential Inventory is a validated instrument that assesses risk for physical abuse of children. These types of measures can also look at problems and strengths of the parenting relationship, such as parenting stress, the emotional availability of the parent and child, and of family dynamics that are gathered through observation rather than self-report instruments. Testing of children is not often done in parenting evaluations, which is unfortunate if the children’s best interests are to be considered, particularly when a child has special needs. Clinicians often assess children for treatment planning purposes; however such assessments are not sufficient for a parenting evaluation.
Depending on the family, parenting evaluators and mental health professionals may use other types of assessment to examine specific problems. For example, if there are allegations of alcohol or drug abuse, the professional might interview the individual, conduct a standardized test such as the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, conduct physical drug testing (e.g., urine, blood, hair), and interview collateral contacts (people that know the individual) who have information about their alleged drug problem such as a neighbor or employer. These types of assessments need to be conducted with great caution, as false accusations are commonly used strategies by parents to obtain and maintain custody of children. For example, if a parent claims the other parent has physically abused their child, an investigation can take months or even years to complete. During this time, the accused parent may not see their child or have limited contact with them, leading to alienation caused by the accusing parent. Swift and thorough assessments by experts specially trained on the problem is needed to ensure the safety of the child, but also to ensure that the child’s relationship with the accused parent is not inadvertently damaged over time and with a false accusation.
Importantly, mental health professionals must be well trained in the administration of assessment instruments and know how they should be scored and interpreted. Unfortunately, many evaluators make scoring mistakes or use outdated or poorly validated measures in their assessments. For special issues, such as concerns about child abuse or parental alienation, professionals with expertise in those areas should be used to conduct a reliable and valid assessment. Finally, it is important to select an evaluator or clinician who uses clinically and legally accepted measures, and who makes efforts to ensure that their skills are up-to-date.
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