How to Become a Family Psychologist

What is a Family Psychologist?

The Mayo Clinic defines family therapy as “a type of psychological counseling done to help family members improve communication and resolve conflicts.” Family psychologists meet with groups of family members to train them how to interact in a way that is nonthreatening and beneficial to all.

Family psychologists are concerned with interactions between husbands and wives and between parents and children. They help with family relations when families are dealing with physical and emotional illnesses. They are also concerned with child abuse and neglect. Furthermore, they help family members cope with stress during relational dissolution, divorce, remarriage, and blended families.

Family psychologists also work with patients who have lost family members to help them work through their grief or with children who have been through traumatic events such as the Newtown, Connecticut attack, to help them express their fears and learn to cope with them.

What Does a Family Psychologist Do?

A family psychologist is a trained individual who works with individuals and family groups to address various issues. These issues may be focused around one individual or on issues concerning the family dynamic and relationships. Examples include problem behaviors from children, disagreement between parents about raising of children, substance abuse or mental health issues. In essence, family psychologists are involved where the issues of an individual is causing harm to their family unit.

It is important for the family psychologist to understand the motivators and needs of the individuals as well as understanding the family dynamics. They must work with a clear focus on developmental psychology and mental health problems, helping all family members to better understand and provide support structures for those affected. They also have to be acutely aware of any economic or social issues impacting all individuals within the family group.

The role will usually focus on spending time with the members of the family separately, often conducting interviews and psychological tests where relevant, before bringing them together in a group setting to further discuss the issues. The aim is to define goals within the group and initiate achievable action plans to improve the family dialogue and relationships. They may be involved in onward referral of individuals for further health care or counseling if necessary.

The ultimate goal of the family psychologist is to help families better understand their issues, discuss them and improve communication within the family unit. The aim is that they can deal with their ongoing issues in the home, with improved open and honest dialogue. Family psychologists build strong relationships with individuals and families alike to help relationships within that family group strengthen.

Family psychologists will also be involved with ongoing assessment and evaluation of practices, techniques and treatments to ensure best practice and development of new, more effective, interventions.

What Education and Training is Required to Become a Family Psychologist?

The first thing an aspiring family psychologist needs to do after high school is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in general psychology. It usually takes four years for a full-time student to finish the required courses, consisting of about 120 academic units of both psychology and general education. About 35 to 40 units must consist of psychology courses. General education courses usually consist of English, foreign languages, history, humanities, political science, and physical science.

Each university has its own requirements for graduation. At Boston University, for example, undergraduate psychology students must take psychology courses making up two lists: list A consists of courses in physiological psychology, learning, cognition, and perception; list B consists of courses in developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, personality, and social psychology.

At the University of Hawaii at Hilo students are required to complete courses in basic psychology, statistical techniques, and scientific methodology, as well as various other psychology courses to be chosen by the student, for a total of 41 semester credits. Michigan State University requires students to take 31 or 32 units of psychology courses and 15 units of natural science in addition to the standard general education courses. Individuals planning upon a degree in psychology should consult the school catalog and discuss their plans with school counselors before deciding upon a university and study plans.

Post-Graduation

After completing his or her bachelor’s degree in psychology the future family psychologist will need to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) in marriage and family counseling. Graduate schools vary in their requirements for PhD programs, but in general they want to see promising undergraduate grades and can ask for recommendations from undergraduate teachers who know the student well.

Candidates for Ph.D’s must perform original research and write a dissertation explaining their findings. The research should be in some area of family psychology, such as dysfunctional families or family growth and development. A written paper as well as an oral defense presented to selected faculty members are required. Some universities require publication of the dissertation in a refereed psychology journal. Most states also require a year of supervised internship during the PhD program.

What are the Licensing Requirements?

Diploma in hand, the newly-minted PhD in family psychology is now ready to obtain a license to practice. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards is a good place to get information. According to the Association, sixty-two states, territories, and provinces in the United States and Canada rely upon the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology to test candidates’ knowledge of clinical psychology. (New Mexico is a rare exception, requiring only a PhD).  Questions are based upon a 2010 survey of practicing psychologists and what knowledge they used in practice.

Other tests can be required, and vary from state to state.  Supervised clinical practice is also required, and varies in length from one jurisdiction to another. After obtaining his or her license, a psychologist must continue taking continuing education courses throughout his or her career to keep up with developments in the field. PhD’s in psychology should look to their own psychology state boards for specific requirements for obtaining and maintaining a license to practice.

Where Does a Family Psychologist Work?

A family psychologist generally works in the following environments:

  • Clinics
  • Schools and Colleges
  • Community health services
  • Family service centers
  • Mental health facilities
  • Nursing and residential care facilities
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Individual and family services
  • Government and private hospitals
  • Private practice

What is the Salary for a Family Psychologist?

According to the BLS, Marriage and Family Therapists earned the average salary of $51,730, in 2014. Top ten percent earned the average salary of $78,920 and bottom ten percent on averaged earned $30,510. Salaries vary a great deal depending upon whether a practitioner is in private practice or working for an institution such as a school. Geography also makes a difference, as it does in nearly all occupations.

Where Does a Family Psychologist Work?

Once licensed, family psychologists have different options as to where to practice. They can work in private practice either as solo clinicians or in offices with other psychologists and other healthcare workers. They can go to work as school counselors or work for county mental health facilities. Hospitals also employ psychologists.

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