How to Become a Family Psychologist – 2024 Schooling and Career Guide

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

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?

Family Psychologist Undergraduate Education

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.

Family Psychologist Graduate Education

After completing your bachelor’s degree in psychology you will need to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.) in marriage and family counseling. However, if you are planning to work as a counselor or a therapist instead of a psychologist, then you just need a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field.

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).

Other tests can be required, and vary from state to state.  Supervised clinical work experience 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.

What Does it Take to Become a Family Psychologist?

  • Positive Attitude/Optimism: Family psychologists have the potential of getting worn down from spending most of their time around individuals who are in a negative emotional state. It is important to be able to leave work at work and stay positive.
  • Empathy: One skill a family psychologist needs to have is being able to understand where the client is coming from and communicate that they understand. Its important to be able to be empathetic while not giving the individual permission to beat themselves up.
  • Interest in Learning: A good psychologist will be knowledgeable about the latest therapeutic practices in order to best help their clients. Wanting to learn from other practitioners can also be a good skill to have.
  • Dedication: Many clients suffering from depression have symptoms over a substantial period of time. This may require the psychologist to maintain a working relationship with an individual client over many sessions. Being determined in the face of slow progress will help both the client and therapist.
  • Active Listening: Hearing what a client is saying and not saying is important for recognizing ways to help the individual. The client should always feel that they are being listened to and heard. This may require the psychologist to pause writing notes to ensure they are giving their full attention to the client.
  • Setting Boundaries: In all therapeutic settings, boundaries must be set between the client and therapist to ensure all interactions are ethical. Being honest and upfront with a client if they are crossing boundaries requires clear communication.

Where Does a Family Psychologist Work?

Family psychologists are generally employed in:

  • 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

What is the Salary for a Family Psychologist?

As of February 2024, according to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for psychologist in general is $154,056 per year. Top earners make over $200,000 per year.

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.

What is the Employment Outlook For Family Psychologists?

Job outlook for family psychologists for a ten year period, 2022 to 2032, is 15%. This is much faster than average. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states the average is 11% for most occupations.

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