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What is a child psychologist?
A child psychologist has professional training and clinical skills to evaluate and treat the mental, emotional, social and behavioral health of infants, toddlers, children and adolescents.
Child psychologists have a thorough understanding of the basic psychological needs of children and adolescents and how their family and other social contexts influence their:
- Social and emotional adjustment.
- Developmental processes.
- Behavioral adaptation.
Child psychologists also have expert knowledge of mental and behavioral conditions that affect children.
What do child psychologists do?
Child psychologists use a wide range of procedures and skills when working with children and adolescents, including:
- Assessing psychological, intellectual, cognitive and behavioral issues with testing and evaluation.
- Using interventions such as psychotherapy (talk therapy) and behavior management.
- Developing prevention programs, such as preventing bullying, addictions, teen pregnancy, etc.
- Consulting with other professionals and healthcare providers who work with children.
Child psychologists are often included in the comprehensive care of children with medical problems. For example, they may help children with sleep difficulties or chronic pain or those coping with a chronic illness.
The emotional, mental and behavioral conditions that affect children are often treated differently from adults due to differences in age, cognitive levels and maturity. Because of this, child psychologists can use several different types of therapy techniques based on your child’s age and unique situation. Depending on the age and needs of your child, child psychologists may work solely with you (or guardians) to help with parenting skills or how to best address your child’s behaviors.
These therapies include:
- Art therapy.
- Behavioral therapy.
- Child-centered play therapy.
- Child-parent relationship therapy.
- Child anger management therapy.
- Child trauma therapy.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
- Emotionally focused therapy.
- Group or family therapy.
- Music therapy.
- Occupational therapy.
- Parent-child interaction therapy.
What’s the difference between a child therapist and a child psychologist?
A child therapist has a master’s degree in a mental health-related field such as psychology, counseling psychology or marriage and family therapy. A child therapist is qualified to evaluate children’s mental and behavioral health and use therapeutic techniques, such as talk therapy. Therapists usually have an approach that’s more focused on problem-solving.
A child psychologist has a doctoral degree (PhD) and often has extensive training in psychological research or clinical practice. Child psychologists can conduct many tests that therapists can’t, to help diagnose mental health and learning issues, such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and learning differences.
Should my child see a therapist or psychologist?
While the work of child therapists and child psychologists overlap in a lot of ways, there are some distinct differences in what they can offer you and your child.
A therapist can help your child to work through difficult situations, learn coping skills to manage intense feelings and help families get along better.
While a therapist can help treat your child’s emotional or mental health issues, they may not be the best fit if you need a diagnosis for an IEP (individualized education plan) or other school accommodations. Schools often prefer that you work with a psychologist for this.
Your child may benefit from seeing a therapist if:
- They need emotional support and someone to talk to about their feelings.
- They’re struggling with anxiety, depression, anger or big life changes.
- You’d like help figuring out how to get along better with your child and improve difficult behavior.
- You’d like your child to meet with someone regularly, and you’re not looking for help with medication or more complex mental health conditions.
A child psychologist can conduct many tests that therapists can’t, which can be helpful when you need more information about the source of your child’s difficulties or if your child needs an IEP.
Your child might benefit from seeing a psychologist if:
- You think your child might have a condition that affects their learning or social interaction, such as ADHD, a learning difference or autism spectrum disorder.
- Your child needs help managing emotional or behavioral problems.
- You’d like a more detailed diagnosis for your child.
- One of your goals for therapy is to discover what changes you can make at home and changes your child’s school can make to better support your child.
Both child therapists and child psychologists can’t prescribe medication. If your child needs medication to manage a more complex mental health condition, they may need to see a child psychiatrist, which is a medical doctor who’s an expert in the field of psychiatry — the branch of medicine focused on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication.
What conditions do child psychologists treat?
Child psychologists can treat many kinds of behavioral, emotional, social and mental health issues in children and adolescents. They can also help children with stressors and issues in school, with their family and in life in general.
The conditions and situations a child psychologist can help treat include:
- Abuse, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse or child neglect.
- Anger issues.
- Coping with a new diagnosis or living with a chronic illness.
- Coping with divorce or other family issues.
- Developmental and learning differences, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia and communication disorders.
- Disruptive behavior disorders, including conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
- Eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
- Grief and loss.
- Identity and self-esteem issues, including body dysmorphic disorder and gender dysphoria.
- Mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Problems in social contexts.
- Sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares and sleep anxiety.
- Stress related to big life changes.
How can I tell if my child needs to see a child psychologist?
Therapy is an invaluable tool that provides a safe space for adults and children alike to talk through and deal with the stressors life throws at us — whether they’re mental health conditions or temporary situations.
You know your child better than anyone else. If you feel your child is struggling with issues such as school, relationships, managing emotions, behavior and/or learning, they may benefit from seeing a child psychologist.
Here are a few general situations and behaviors to look out for that can help you decide if and when your child could benefit from seeing a child psychologist:
- Your child is dealing with a big change or a stressful situation, such as bullying, a health condition, divorce or a move to a new city or school.
- Your child’s mental, emotional and/or behavioral problems seem to be getting worse over time instead of better.
- Your child or family has experienced a trauma, such as a death, an accident or abuse.
- You notice big personality and/or behavioral changes in your child.
- It’s difficult for your child to make and keep friends.
- Your child’s grades are dropping or they’re often having trouble with their behavior in school
Frequently Asked Questions
How does someone become a child psychologist?
To become a child psychologist, you must successfully complete:
- Four years of undergraduate education at a college or university, resulting in a bachelor’s degree.
- Four to six years of graduate school, resulting in a doctoral degree — either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in a field of psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. This involves specialized education in the field of child psychology.
- A one-year full-time internship during graduate school.
- A national exam and additional exam(s) specific to the state in which you’re practicing.
- In most states, you need an additional year of supervised practice before becoming licensed as a child psychologist. Many child psychologists complete additional post-doctoral training for specialization.
Licensed child psychologists also need to complete continuing education, such as conferences, research and classes, every year throughout their career to stay up to date with advances in their field.
How long does it take to become a child psychologist?
It can take eight to 12 years or more to become a licensed child psychologist. It depends on how quickly you can earn a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree. You’ll also need to complete a one-year full-time internship during graduate school and may need another year of supervised practice depending on which state you’re planning to practice in.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
While it can be difficult to acknowledge that your child is having a difficult time mentally, emotionally, socially or behaviorally, seeking professional help for them is important. A child psychologist can help your child explore their feelings in a safe, supportive and nonjudgmental environment. They’re experts in their field and have up-to-date knowledge on research and therapy strategies that can help your child. Your child’s psychologist will work with you and them to determine a treatment plan that works best for your child.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
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