Child Therapist: Job Description, Duties and Requirements
Child therapists, or child psychologists, diagnose and treat children aged 17 and younger with mental, behavioral or emotional problems. These highly trained professionals may work in a clinical setting in private practices, as part of a medical team or in a school environment. State regulations for child psychologists require a doctoral degree and proven practice experience.
Children and young teens face emotional problems that are specific to their age group, and child psychologists strive to help their patients with these particular issues. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol, depression and anxiety, sexuality concerns, schoolwork and self-discipline, time management issues and family crises such as divorce or death all affect children differently than adults. Child therapists spend their time assessing the depth of these problems with their patients and working with them to develop coping skills and solutions.
Clinical child psychologists focus on the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders ranging from depression to schizophrenia. These professionals operate in a clinical setting, usually in a private practice but sometimes in a hospital, and are trained to provide strategies for coping with specific disorders. They interview patients and conduct tests, and they may provide family psychotherapy. If substance abuse is involved, a child therapist might devise a treatment plan or intervention; if a child suffers from phobias, the therapist may implement a behavior modification program.
Counseling child psychologists take a behavioral approach to emotional problems with children and adolescents. These child therapists focus on helping their patients to develop ways to use their own strengths to cope with issues, and they counsel entire families when necessary. A counseling child psychologist's training is based on the belief that behavior is influenced by numerous factors such as environment, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and culture, and as such, each child's psychological problems and potential well-being are unique. These professionals work in private practice and also in schools.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that in 2012, about a third of licensed psychologists were in private practice (www.bls.gov). Whether counseling child therapists or clinical child therapists, these psychologists are self-employed. Clients are treated in their offices on an outpatient basis. Sometimes a child psychologist will join a health care practice such as a family practice physician's office or a pediatrician's office, leading to a team approach to the health of the whole child. The overall employment of psychologists was expected to increase 12% from 2012-2022, according to the BLS.
A child therapist is uniquely qualified to become a school psychologist. School psychologists provide special assistance to students who are struggling with learning disabilities, social disorders or emotional problems. They work with faculty to determine the best learning strategies for students, and they perform crisis management when necessary. Child psychologists in this role often coach parents and can serve as effective liaisons between the school and its families. The BLS reported that clinical, counseling and school psychologists earned a mean wage of $72,710 in May 2013. Clinical, counseling and school psychologist positions were projected to increase 11% from 2012-2022.
Most states require doctorate-level training for the independent practice of psychology, as well as a qualified postdoctoral internship. The following psychology degree programs are available.
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology
This 4-year baccalaureate program introduces future child therapists to the fundamentals of psychology with a mixture of classroom lectures and research experience. Statistics is heavily emphasized in this program, and some of the subspecialties of psychology are introduced at the undergraduate level. Since most students in this program intend to do graduate work in the field of psychology, this program is geared towards preparing the student for graduate studies. A student in an undergraduate program in psychology could expect to take courses in topics such as:
- Consumerism and the psychological perspective
- Statistical methodology
- Research methodology
- Introductory neuroscience
- Cognitive psychology
Master of Arts in Psychology
The Master of Arts (M.A.) in Psychology is a 2-year program designed to build on the bachelor's degree in psychology. A master's degree in psychology with a concentration in child clinical services will serve the future child therapist well. This curriculum is designed to provide the graduate with assessment and diagnostic skills directly related to the emotional, academic and cognitive aspects of children's and teens' lives. Intervention skills in clinical settings will be taught, as will psychopathology. A student in a program such as this could expect to take courses covering the following:
- Introductory psychological testing
- Personality psychology
- Counseling microskills
- Lifespan development
- Child and adolescent psychopathology
- Family and self in cultural context
Doctorate in Psychology
A doctoral degree program in psychology is structured around intense study and original research, and it results in either a dissertation (for a Doctor of Philosophy program) or supervised practical work (for a Doctor of Psychology program). Doctoral degree programs in psychology also require a year of supervised postdoctoral work. A doctoral degree program in clinical psychology with a subspecialty in clinical child psychology will qualify the aspiring child therapist for independent practice. Coursework for the doctoral student in a program like this might include:
- Statistical design in research
- Intelligence testing
- Assessment and intervention
- Cultural diversity in psychology
Each individual state handles its own licensing and has a state licensing board. State requirements include a doctoral degree, postdoctorate work and 1-2 years of professional experience. Each state administers a professional examination for licensure. Some states require renewal; the rules vary from state to state.
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