Becoming a Child Psychologist
Child psychologists use their expertise in counseling, assessment and human behavior to help kids and teens cope with their problems and grow into successful, well-adjusted adults. Relying on research-backed techniques, these professionals help their clients to better understand the reasons behind problematic feelings and behaviors and to replace these with positive skills and strategies.
When it comes to creating a healthier, more positive world for young people, child psychologists play many important roles, including:
- Diagnosing and treating mental health conditions
- Providing supportive counseling to children who are experiencing stress or trauma
- Assessing behavior and learning to provide a clearer picture of a child’s needs
- Serving as a consultant to parents, teachers, physicians and other caretakers
- Helping institutions such as schools, treatment centers and correctional facilities create psychologically healthy environments
- Testifying as an expert witness in criminal and custody cases and other proceedings related to family law
- Conducting research in the field to improve the welfare of children
Child psychologists often work with clients who are coping with life-changing experiences like abuse, trauma, family issues, learning disabilities, bullying, addiction and eating disorders. Depending on the setting, young clients may choose to seek help from a psychologist or may be referred by parents, schools or the justice system.
Because children and teens need healthy environments to thrive, psychologists often operate within a treatment team of family members, teachers and physicians and social workers. In some cases, they also have contact with corrections or law enforcement officers. Working together, these stakeholders create a comprehensive and consistent network of support around the child that promotes growth and recovery.
While helping young people who are in pain can be difficult, child psychologists find great intrinsic value in their work. The care they provide can make an enormous difference in children’s lives by relieving stress and anxiety, promoting positive coping skills and preventing complications down the road.
Child psychologists work in schools, hospitals, treatment facilities, the justice system and private practice. Most of their time is spent in office settings, though they may travel to court appearances, research sites or to observe clients at school, home or work.
Psychologists in private practice have some flexibility to set their own schedules. However, they still must consider the needs of clients. Because children are often in school during regular business hours, they usually offer some evenings and weekend appointments.
Becoming a child psychologist requires at least 6-9 years of study beyond high school. The first step is to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree. While most graduate programs in psychology do not require a particular undergraduate major, coursework in psychology, human development, juvenile issues and statistics is desirable. Because graduate school admissions are quite competitive, it’s also important to achieve the best possible score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Volunteer or research experience in the field will also help to boost a candidate’s application.
Diploma mills—substandard educational institutions that offer inadequate training and worthless credentials—are a growing problem in the field of psychology. In some cases, these schools will invent fake accreditors to disguise their actions and boost their credibility. When applying to graduate programs in psychology, be sure to choose an institution accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Most child psychologists hold a PhD (a research-based degree that requires a dissertation) or a PsyD (a practice-based degree that waives the research requirement). School psychologists may practice with a master’s degree as long as they have completed specialized classroom and clinical training.
Accredited programs in psychology include an extended internship component. After earning a PhD or a PsyD, most candidates spend an additional year practicing under close supervision in an APA-accredited postdoctoral program.
Licensing and/or Certification
In order to practice as a child psychologist, candidates need to pass the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP) and obtain state licensure. Rules vary, and some states have additional requirements.
Board certification in Child and Adolescent Psychology is governed by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). To be eligible, candidates must hold a doctorate from an accredited institution and complete a year of post-doctoral supervision or equivalent work experience. Certification requires passage of an extensive written and oral exam.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Psychologists possess an innate curiosity about human nature and behavior. They rely on scientific principals and methods to better understand this behavior and help their clients achieve lasting change. Those who work with children must have the patience and skill to communicate with young people who may lack the cognitive and verbal capacity to describe their needs and feelings. Working with disturbed and abused children can be emotionally challenging, and psychologists must have considerable emotional stability in order to maintain perspective and focus.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced child psychologists may be promoted to supervise the work of junior staff at treatment centers and mental health facilities. Some psychologists also leave the clinical setting to become consultants, teach or conduct research. Setting up a private practice allows these professionals a more flexible schedule and the freedom to focus on a clinical area of interest.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all psychologists was $68,640 in 2010. Newly certified child psychologists generally earn $55,000 - $80,000. With ten or more years of experience, this range increases to $80,000 - $100,000.
A child psychologist who holds a doctorate usually earns around 50% more over his lifetime than one with a master's degree and enjoys a wider range of career opportunities. Psychologists in school settings tend to earn below-average salaries.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of clinical, counseling and school psychologists will grow by 22% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered faster than the average for all occupations. Demand is particularly strong for psychologists to work with the growing student population and with young people who have autism. The shift toward multi-disciplinary teaming in health care is also creating a need for child psychologists to provide comprehensive treatment to clients with complex needs.