What exactly is a child psychologist and what do they do every day? What purpose do they serve in the community?
Whether you're seeking a child psychologist for your own child or searching for criteria of training and educational requirements to complete to become one yourself, everything you need to know about this career and what it has to offer is in one place for you here.
What is a child psychologist?
A child psychologist is a subdivision of a psychology Ph.D. Many mental health professionals seek an advanced degree and choose to specialize in one part of the field or another. If you like the idea of working with children on an emotional and behavior level, child psychology might be for you.
Child psychologists work with children of all ages ranges from infants to adolescences; however, some specialize specifically with a particular group (for example, adolescents, school-aged or developmental stage). The environment in which the child psychologist works will determine the style of treatment or level of care they are expected and able to perform.
Child psychologists can be found in schools, hospitals, in private practice and/or in other community organizations or non-profit settings. Some work in therapeutic hands-on settings while others work is more focused on research and conducting studies to further understand children psychology and mental health development. Often times a child psychologist is part of a larger team involving counselors, teachers, parents, pediatricians and other professionals in the medical and mental health fields that work in synergy to determine the diagnosis and treatment plan to best fit the child and their needs.
Child psychologists have many roles including:
- Diagnosis and treatment planning for long-term treatment goals
- Behavior management and behavior modification techniques
- Research and scientific studies involving children and child development
- Administering psychological testing on children (especially true in schools)
Treatments used by child psychologists:
Evidence-based treatments or EBT's are considered "best practice" in the psychological realm. These are scientifically based and tested treatment approaches that have been through clinical trials and have the data to back up their effectiveness when working with a specific condition or behavior.
Even though EBTs are considered the "best practice" not all therapy type fits every child and their needs. Therefore, while many therapeutic approaches used typically have a strong scientific backing, some may not have the same overwhelming evidentiary "proof" of success, but work nonetheless. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, these are the most common treatment approaches used by child psychologists today:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic focus on thoughts and feelings. The premise is that thoughts lead to how a child feels and what they feel and how they process that feeling can be the cause of negative reactions or behaviors. In this type of therapy, the goal is to change those thoughts to have a different meaning, in turn, modify the feeling that follows, thus eliminating the negative behavior from occurring.
- Family Therapy is more focused on the family unit as a whole. Working as a team like a machine, the therapist is the oil greasing the gears to help everything run more smoothly and more efficiently. The therapist would help the family to explore their current communication patterns and offer helpful resources and replacements to aid the family in better interactions and overall communication. Family therapy is used in various settings, but in relation to kids, this therapy can include siblings, parent, step-parents or grandparents depending on the goals for therapy.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is typically used to treat older adolescents with a very difficult time managing emotions. This type of treatment is commonly used for suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Where CBT focuses on changing thinking to change behaviors, DBT uses a focus on thinking to change feelings. There is a mindfulness piece to this that meant to highlight the patient's emotions without judgment and teach them the skills to manage such.
- Group Therapy is run as one therapeutic session with multiple patients and only one or two mediating therapists. The purpose is to focus on the group dynamic and allow the group to help each other (with the aid of the therapist) throughout their processes. Each group focuses on a similar subject (depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, etc) and all patients are usually of a similar age and developmental stage. Group therapy can be used for many age ranges in children but is commonly used when treating pre-adolescents or adolescents. This type of therapy centers on forming relationships, holding each other accountable, improving self-esteem and social skills, developing and honing coping skills and general sharing with the group.
- Play Therapy When children are younger, expressing complex feelings and emotions is not something they are developmentally mature enough to share. In that case, play therapy can be extremely useful when working with young children. Therapists do this by using toys, coloring, blocks, games, drawings, dolls and puppets as a way to assess how the child is feeling or thinking through the words or drawings they produce in play. Over time, the use of play therapy helps the therapist identify patterns and problems and while playing the child is more comfortable opening up to discuss what they are experiencing.
- Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) is a brief therapy focused mainly on depression, but has been known to be effective in other forms of treatment as well. It's short term so the focus is direct, concise and is laser-focused on treating the immediate issue at hand. A life-changing event like a divorce would be a good example of how and when IPT might be used with a child.
- Psychodynamic Therapy is a far less commonly used form of treatment in modern therapeutic settings. It is known as "global therapy" which has a holistic approach to treatment where there are more interpretations of client's mental process rather than a focus on behavior. Psychodynamic therapy is past-present-future focused and wants to dive deep into a person's psyche to get to the root of their unhealthy thinking. In children, this is even less commonly used than in adults but is still important to understand since it is still used in some circumstances.
How to find a child psychologist
Finding a child psychologist in your area may be the easy part, but finding one with a treatment model and personality that fits with your child could take some time. Don't be afraid to switch if you're finding that your child is having a hard time connecting over time.
The most important piece when working with a child psychologist is that they are able to form a working relationship with your child to progress through the therapeutic process. That will be stalled or stunted if there isn't a mutual connection on some basic level. Shopping for the right therapist is common and encouraged, so don't let yourself settle (or your child). You can search local child psychologists online.
Turning to the professionals in your child's life that your already trust are great resources to use for referral recommendations. Ask their pediatrician, teacher, social worker, or other school staff if they have suggestions for someone who specializes in your child's cognitive or behavioral needs.
- Make sure there is a potential for your child and their therapist to"click" and build a relationship because 85 percent of change will hinge on that.
- Find a therapist that highlights your child's strengths and puts your child first over any potential diagnosis.
- A child psychologist working towards an overall healthy child will use the parents as a resource and consider them allies and partners. They may not give you specific details of your child's sessions (and this is normal because you want your child to trust and open up to them and if your child believes they are going to "tattle" to you, that won't happen), but the should have an understanding that if this change is going to continue at home and once therapy is over, it's necessary to have the parents on board and included.
- Your child's psychologist should be culturally sensitive to them. They don't necessarily have to be raised in the same type of home or have the same ethnic background, but they should have an empathetic understanding of your child's and be able to show that through their communications during sessions and outside in conversation.
Educational requirements of a child psychologist
This title requires years of academic training. Depending on the level at which you'd like to practice, the requirement could range from 6-9 years of college coursework and involve years of internships or national and/or state exams.
Degree requirements and majors
A bachelor's degree from an accredited university majoring on psychology, child development, statistics or another field of psychology or science would be beneficial to your chances of moving on to a higher level university to complete your graduate degree. Many programs have additional expectations that you complete some variation of volunteer work, community service or internships to further your knowledge in this field.
To be a licensed therapist or counselor, most states require you to complete a minimum of a graduate degree. To work in a university or private practice, many states require you to have completed some form of a doctoral program whether that be a Ph.D. or PsyD. A Ph.D. program typically revolves more around research and requires a dissertation whereas a PsyD is more practice-based and focused more on the patient/client relationship piece.
College graduate degree programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Exam or GRE before admission acceptance. The higher the score on that test, the more likely you will get admitted into a top graduate curriculum.
Most (if not all) states have licensure exams that are necessary to pass and keep active and continuing education coursework periodically to stay current on best practice and keep your license valid. Some programs require you to take national exams for national board certifications as well.
To work in a school, most states require additional coursework as part of your college completion along with additional state licensure tests to be in compliance with the states educational standards.
Child psychologists can be found working in educational settings, whether they are employed by the school or contracted to work with students on a case by case basis. They are also are employed in hospitals, community organizations, universities or run a private practice individually or with a group of other therapists.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a child psychologist in 2018 was $85,340. In areas with the highest levels of employment pertaining to this field, the median salary was $76,990. Individual services and educational settings held the lowest salaries between $78,000-$85,000.
The higher scale of salaries was in healthcare settings with an average of $95,000 in physician's offices, $96,000 in other health care office, and $93,000 in outpatient care settings. In areas of the country with the most concentration of child psychologist jobs available, the average salary was only slightly less averaging about $2,000-$5,000 less per year. The states with the most jobs in this field ranked highest in California. Additionally, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania were all among the states with the highest employment levels.
From research gathered by USA Wage in 2018, the state with the highest earning potential for a child psychologist is California. Subsequently, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and North Dakota were all ranked at the top as well.
However, with a growing need of mental health professionals across the country and plenty of hospitals, schools, and community agencies to employ them, you're likely to find a fair paying job anywhere in the country.