Child Psychologist Career Guide

What is a Child Psychologist?

Child psychologists are highly trained psychology specialists that provide a host of services to children, and sometimes adolescents and families, who are experiencing some sort of life difficulty. Child psychologists often work in a clinical or counseling setting with individual clients or groups of clients. They might specialize in a certain childhood-specific issue, such as treating ADHD, autism, or substance abuse, or they might work in a more generalist manner, seeing clients that have a wide range of difficulties.

Child psychologists are generally concerned with the primary issues that children and adolescents are faced with as they grow up. Developmental milestones, social skills, educational issues, and behavioral or emotional problems are common areas of focus with child clients. Likewise, child psychologists work with children to overcome more serious issues, such as severe mental disorders, personality disorders, or abuse.

The study and practice of child psychology is closely related to both developmental psychology and clinical psychology. Child psychologists must have a deep understanding of human development in order to address the issues outlined above in a competent manner. Additionally, child psychologists must be trained in clinical practice so they can deliver effective services to child clients and their families.

What Does a Child Psychologist Do?

The job duties performed by a child psychologist depend heavily on their level of education and employment setting.

Child psychologists that are self-employed and have a private practice will engage clients in individual therapy. In this setting, the child psychologist works with clients on whatever their presenting issue might be to bring about positive change. For example, a child psychologist that works with children that have depression or anxiety might use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help the child identify his or her maladaptive thought patterns. Once those patterns of thought are identified, the child psychologist would work with his or her client on developing healthier and more positive thoughts, which, in turn, leads to more appropriate behaviors and feelings.

Likewise, because their clients are minors and are heavily influenced by their home life, child psychologists are also often responsible for working with families. Child psychologists might undertake Functional Family Therapy or a similar family-based approach, psychotherapy, or behavioral therapy to address a wide variety of family-based issues, from poor communication to sibling rivalry to working through a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one. Family work might include all members of the family working simultaneously with the psychologist, or it might involve parents attending therapy together and children attending therapy in separate sessions.

Many child psychologists become specialists in using play therapy as an effective treatment modality for child clients. In this context, child psychologists use toys, including dolls, blocks, puppets, and art supplies, to help children identify and express their feelings. Child psychologists also analyze the manner in which the child plays, looking for patterns of behavior that provide insight into the child’s problems. Child psychologists that specialize in play therapy also use the play space as a way to educate children regarding how to behave appropriately, more effectively manage their emotions, and express their feelings in a more clear and appropriate manner.

Facilitating and overseeing group therapy is also a common duty for child psychologists. Group therapies might take place in a private practice situation, and are also common in educational settings and treatment facilities. For example, a child psychologist working at a juvenile substance abuse treatment center might conduct group sessions for children that have become addicted to alcohol or drugs. They might oversee a 12-step program to help group participants develop insight into their behaviors, as well as develop skills that allow them to overcome their addiction.

Trained child psychologists may work with school-aged children in an educational environment as well. Often, this involves being part of a school’s special education department, where child psychologists work with children, parents, teachers, and administrators to ensure the child has the resources they need to be successful.

Duties in this context might be to work as part of an interdisciplinary team to help a behaviorally challenged, emotionally disturbed, or learning disabled student achieve their highest potential in school. Child psychologists might be relied upon to devise a course of treatments and interventions to help the child cope with his or her mental illness or disability in a more appropriate manner. There may also be duties related to helping classroom teachers develop the skills and knowledge they need to attend more appropriately to the needs of a child in his or her classroom. There is an evaluative component to school-based work, both in terms of administering various psychological tests and evaluating a child’s academic progress as part of the Individual Education Plan (IEP).

A significant portion of a child psychologist’s job, regardless of the employment setting, is to collect and evaluate information. Child psychologists will administer a variety of tests to their clients, such as intake interviews, personality tests, depression inventories, IQ tests, or behavioral assessments. After administration of a testing instrument, child psychologists must score and interpret the results, with the information gathered to be used to devise treatment programs for their clients.

Why Do We Need Child Psychologists?

Childhood should be a worry-free time of happiness and joy, but the presence of a mental health issue can instead make childhood stressful and worrisome. Child psychologists are necessary because they have the training, skills, and aptitudes to help children and adolescents effectively deal with social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological issues in order to lead a happy life. What’s more, the work that child psychologists do with child clients sets the stage for clients to live a well-adjusted and happy adult life.

Whether it’s instituting an intervention strategy to help a child improve his or her achievement at school or engaging in play therapy to help an abused child overcome the trauma they have experienced, the services of child psychologists are needed in order to give children the best shot at a long, happy, and prosperous life as is possible.

Where Does a Child Psychologist Work?

Most child psychologists work in educational or mental health settings that deal specifically with childhood issues.

Public or private school districts often employ licensed child psychologists to work with their special education and regular education students. Social service agencies, such as the Department of Family Services, Child Protection Services, group homes, and orphanages also often employ child psychologists. Many non-profit organizations, such as those that specialize in working with homeless youth, employ child psychologists as well.

One fast-growing employment setting for child psychologists are medical and healthcare related facilities. Hospitals, inpatient and outpatient mental health centers, and community clinics are increasingly looking for qualified child psychologists to join their teams. Likewise, government facilities, such as juvenile detention centers, boot camps, and mental hospitals employ child psychologists.

Many child psychologists also venture into the realm of private practice. Typically, private practice affords the psychologist the greatest income potential. However, they may be required to work longer hours and longer workweeks to accommodate clients.

Still other psychologists that specialize in working with children work in research settings, investigating issues that pertain to the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. Jobs in this sector may be for private research companies, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, or non-profit organizations.

Some child psychologists also work with the judicial system to serve as advocates and expert witnesses. Others utilize their knowledge of childhood mental health issues to work as consultants for a variety of clients, from individual families to school districts to corporations and businesses.

What is the Career Outlook for Child Psychologists?

The employment outlook for child psychologists is expected to be slightly above average for the next seven to eight years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that employment for psychologists will grow at a rate of 12% through the rest of this decade or just 1% above the average for all occupations.

What will fuel this moderate growth is an expected increase in demand for psychological services in schools, community mental health settings, social service agencies, hospitals, and the like. An increasing emphasis on prevention and intervention strategies, combined with an interdisciplinary focus, will drive the need for psychologists in the healthcare sector in particular.

Naturally, with a specialization in child psychology, workers would have the best opportunities for employment in school-related or community-based settings. These positions often require at least a master’s degree as well as supervised practice. Therefore, job prospects for master’s and doctorate-level workers, especially those with several years of experience, licensure, and certifications, will be much more robust than for workers fresh out of graduate school.

What Qualifications are Needed to be a Child Psychologist?

To become a child psychologist, one will need approximately a decade of schooling.

The process begins with four years of undergraduate studies in psychology. Coursework at the bachelor’s degree level is very wide in scope, with the purpose of introducing students to the basics of psychology as a scientific discipline. Coursework includes general education requirements, such as math, science, and English. Psychology coursework involves studies of statistics and research methods, abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, the psychology of learning, and history and systems of psychology, to name a few.

Typically, to be admitted to an undergraduate program, students must have a high school diploma or equivalency, satisfactory scores on either the ACT or SAT, and a GPA that meets or exceeds the minimum requirement.

Once a bachelor’s degree is obtained, the next step is undertaking graduate studies in psychology. For individuals interested in working as a child psychologist, graduate programs in child psychology, developmental psychology, or school psychology are the most appropriate. These programs usually last two years, if students attend full-time. Admissions requirements vary from institution to institution, but usually students must meet GPA requirements and have an appropriately high score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Some graduate schools also require students to interview for a spot in the program.

Graduate studies in child psychology focus on helping students develop the skills they need to effectively treat children with social, emotional, behavioral, or psychological issues. Common courses include assessment and diagnosis, individual and group therapy techniques, educational psychology, psychopathology, and quantitative analysis.

Oftentimes, graduate programs will include an internship requirement in which students spend upwards of 1,000 hours in a supervised placement. Placements for prospective child psychologists can be in a variety of settings, including public or private schools, mental health facilities, or juvenile detention centers.

The final step in becoming a child psychologist is to complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program in clinical or child psychology. Doctorate-level studies can last between two to five years, depending on the program requirements. Like graduate school, doctoral studies focus heavily on preparing students to work with clients. As such, much initial coursework revolves around developing advanced therapeutic skills and techniques. Much coursework is also dedicated to research, with students typically required to develop and defend a dissertation on a subject of their choice.

Post-doctoral work is a common requirement for Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. These placements, like those in graduate school, are intended to provide students with extensive practical experience working with child clients. Many states require post-doctoral work for individuals to be eligible for state licensure.

What Can You Do With a Master’s in Child Psychology?

While the employment options for individuals with a master’s degree in child psychology are more limited than for people with a doctorate, there are still many different types of jobs available.

Many master’s level workers find employment in local or state governments, such as working for human or social service agencies. Working for school districts is another popular option. Some non-profit organizations, such as  charities, or shelters also employ people with a master’s degree in child psychology.

A good number of jobs are available in the research sector as well. Master’s level workers in this field would work under the supervision of a Ph.D. or Psy.D. holder. There are also opportunities for working in community mental health, juvenile correctional facilities, and public and private mental health institutions. Master’s level workers in these settings would also be required to be supervised by a doctor-level psychologist.

What Skills are Required for a Child Psychologist?

Child psychologists must possess a number of critical psychology-related skills if they are to be successful in helping their clients overcome their social, emotional, or behavioral issues. The most important skills to have include:

  • Communication – Child psychologists must be able to communicate with children on their level. This includes using simplified words and phrases to describe or explain something to the client. This also includes using active listening strategies to make the child feel more comfortable in the counseling relationship.
  • Empathy – Children that require psychological services are most likely dealing with a significant issue in their life. This might include abuse of some sort, the death of a loved one, or the presence of a behavioral or emotional disorder. Therefore, it is imperative that child psychologists have the ability to empathize with what their child clients are going through.
  • Problem-solving – Because their clients are so young, and likely do not have the life experience to resolve problems on their own, child psychologists must be excellent problem solvers. This skill must be used carefully, however, to ensure that resolutions to problems are not made on behalf of the child, but instead with the child.
  • Decision-making – Working with young clients will require child psychologists to have well-developed decision-making skills. This is necessary both from a therapeutic standpoint, such as what intervention or technique to use, and from the client’s standpoint, such as helping them make critical decisions that will positively impact their mental and emotional wellbeing.

What Qualities are Required for a Child Psychologist?

In addition to the professional skills listed above, child psychologists are most successful if they have these personal qualities:

  • Approachable – All psychologists must have the personal trait of being approachable. But this is even more important for psychologists that work with children. An effective therapeutic relationship cannot be forged if the child doesn’t feel comfortable with their psychologist.
  • Ethical – Because their clients are in a vulnerable position, psychologists must behave ethically and practice according to their professional code of ethics. This is especially true for child psychologists, because of the age and vulnerability of their clients.
  • Versatile – No two clients are alike, so child psychologists must be able to wear many different hats. This might include utilizing different therapeutic approaches or altering the way in which they communicate with their child clients in order to best meet that individual’s needs.
  • Self-aware – Child psychologists need to be incredibly self-aware to ensure that their own experiences or personal biases do not impact their interactions with their clients. Being able to set aside their personal preferences in favor of tuning into the needs of the child is critical to the success of the therapeutic relationship.
  • Fun loving – The most effective child psychologists are those that are able to let loose and have fun with their client. Whether engaging in play therapy or just offering up some jokes to lighten the mood, psychologists that work with children should have the capacity to have fun and be silly when warranted.

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