How to Become a Youth Psychologist

What is Youth Psychology?

Youth psychology, or child psychology as it is often called, is a discipline of psychology that focuses on the mental, emotional, and behavioral needs of children and adolescents. Youth psychology is a field that specifically addresses the development, well-being, and functioning of youth.

Youth psychologists work with children on a variety of typical issues, like self-esteem, peer pressure, and conflict with parents or siblings. Other common reasons why youth need psychological help are divorce, abuse or neglect, problems at school such as bullying, or even learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Because children have brains that are still developing, youth psychology takes a different approach to treatment in many cases than it would with an adult client. For example, where an adult client may be engaged in talk therapy with his or her psychologist, a youth psychologist might engage their child client in playtime as a vehicle for discussing topics that are distressing. Likewise, whereas individual therapy might be warranted for an adult client that’s got a conflict with a loved one, a child client may be better served attending a special group for children whose family is wrought with problems.

Youth psychology includes a research component as well. Many youth psychologists seek to find answers to important questions about youth and adolescence, like how personality forms and how nature and nurture interact to influence academic achievement. Combined with the therapeutic offerings discussed above, youth psychology directs research and treatment of childhood psychological issues.

What Does a Youth Psychologist Do?

The job duties of a youth psychologist are to assess and treat children. They utilize assessment tools and their own clinical judgment to see how a child is functioning and whether they may be showing symptoms of any type of disability or disorder. A youth psychologist uses standardized measurements, including surveys or checklists, to identify any areas of need that a child might have.

A youth psychologist may also interview and observe the child and his/her parents or caregivers and possibly their childcare providers or teachers. The interviews, observations, and measurement tools will help to determine what treatment is needed for the child. The youth psychologist will then conduct one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and/or complete referrals for the needs of the child.

Youth psychologists often use play therapy methods (using toys, art, and expressive activities in a therapeutic way) to help a child to overcome certain challenges he or she has experienced, a trauma the child has gone through, or to learn healthier coping skills or behavior management techniques. A youth psychologist might also involve parents or the family in treatment as they are so involved and so influential on the well-being and functioning of the child.

Why Do We Need Youth Psychologists?

The role of a youth psychologist is uniquely placed within psychology professions to positively impact upon people’s lives. Working with young people, at a time when they are particularly struggling and vulnerable, these psychologists often provide someone’s only “safe” place to discuss their concerns.

By helping people at this stage, a youth psychologist knows that they have had a direct and powerful impact on someone’s life. If issues are successfully addressed then they can be dealt with into adulthood without impacting upon social or educational development. Without these psychologists, many people would begin their adult lives from a point of disadvantage.

Youth psychologists can work specifically within the juvenile justice systems and similarly, if they are successful in their intervention at that point, they can know that they have likely prevented that client from reoffending and getting into even more serious trouble with the law. The role may be challenging but the rewards are unique.

Where Does a Youth Psychologist Work?

A youth psychologist generally works in the following settings:

  • Schools
  • Private practice
  • Juvenile facilities
  • The justice system
  • Hospitals and medical centers
  • Mental health clinics
  • Child welfare agencies
  • Academic and other research institutes

What are the Educational and Licensing Requirements?

In order to become a licensed youth psychologist, you need to obtain a doctoral degree, which can take approximately 5-7 years after your master’s degree. However, some universities may allow applicants to enroll directly in a doctoral program after completing a bachelor’s degree.

A bachelor’s degree can usually be completed in four years of full-time coursework. You can obtain your bachelor’s and master’s degrees either in psychology or social work in order to work in a job that would consist of the job duties as a youth psychologist. The main difference, though, is that the fields of psychology and social work have slightly different codes of ethics that you have to abide by and also would give you different credentials that you would be labeled with. Additionally, many master’s degree programs will accept students even from other disciplines (rather than psychology or social work), as well.

Since job opportunities with a master’s degree can be limited and to continue your education even further, you can obtain a Ph.D., which is typically required for becoming a licensed psychologist. You could also obtain a Psy.D. if you are looking to work clinically and do not want to work in research. A doctoral degree is also required for independent/private practice.

Throughout your education, you will be required to obtain training, such as by completing at least one internship. You also have to obtain licensure. Each state varies on the exact requirements, but they all require licensure before being able to practice as a “psychologist”. A doctoral degree is required to obtain psychologist licensure. Also, continuing education (training hours) is required yearly to keep up on current knowledge. Oftentimes, this is around forty hours of training per year.

Employers may prefer you to have a history of training and work experience related to working with children.

What Do You Learn in a Youth Psychology Degree?

In undergraduate studies, prospective youth psychologists take part in general studies in psychology. Areas of learning typically include the history of psychology, educational psychology, experimental psychology, and statistics. This coursework lays the foundation for more specific studies in graduate school.

Once in graduate school, students explore topics more in depth and focus more on issues that pertain specifically to working with children. Graduate students explore topics related to childhood and adolescence, including the social, emotional, and physical changes that occur during that time period. Students would develop the skills needed to empathize with children as well.

Youth psychology students would also learn a host of clinical skills. This includes learning to work with children in one-on-one situations, as well as leading small therapeutic groups. Strong communication skills, including the ability to actively listen and interpret what children are saying verbally and nonverbally, would be an integral component of any learning program. Some youth psychology students also become well versed in the usage of play therapy, in which psychologists interact with children in the context of play.

What Skills are Needed to be a Youth Psychologist?

To be a youth psychologist, you must have good observational and analytical skills. You should be able to think abstractly and problem solve about the way children function. You must be compassionate and patient with children. You should also believe that children have a right to self-expression (in healthy ways). You should feel comfortable playing with toys and using art supplies. You might not necessarily be playing with children all of the time, but you should be willing to participate in their play if it is appropriate for the particular child working with and the particular treatment model you are using.

You also need to be comfortable with emotions and willing to allow the expression of emotion. You should be empathic, nonjudgmental, and accepting of the children you work with and their families. You should be able to look at and think critically (in a helpful way) about an individual as well as about bigger systems, such as families, schools, and the communities, as these bigger systems often influence the children you will be working with.

What is the Salary of a Youth Psychologist?

The average annual salary of a youth psychologist varies depending on the work setting you are in. As of September 2015, according to Payscale the average salary for a child psychologist is $68,970.

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