Examining the important role of a child psychologist
The national conversation about mental health has shifted over the years. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are working hard to break the stigma that once existed. The discussion has become even more common due to the mental health crisis on the rise.
And this phenomenon is not limited to adults — children are being affected at surprising rates as well. As the psychology field continues to evolve, there’s been a growing focus on child psychology as a specialization. If you’re interested in dedicating your career to serving the mental, emotional and physical well-being of the children in your community, you’ve come to the right place.
What does a child psychologist do, and why do they play such a critical role in society? Keep reading for these answers and more.
Why is child psychology important?
The American Psychological Association (APA) reports an estimated 15 million American youth can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. But a majority of these young people never receive appropriate help from qualified mental health professionals.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and behavior disorders are among the most common mental health conditions that can be diagnosed during childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list. Consider the following estimates:
- 9.8 percent (approximately 6 million) of youth ages 3–17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.
- 8.9 percent (approximately 5.5 million) of youth ages 3–17 have a diagnosed behavior problem.
- 9.4 percent (approximately 5.8 million) of youth ages 3–17 have diagnosed anxiety.
These numbers, both the CDC and APA note, are more pronounced among children and youth living in low-income communities. The CDC reports that more than one in five children who live below the federal poverty level have received a diagnosis of a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.
Child mental health care advocates maintain that all young people have the right to health and happiness. Children, they say, deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any mental health problems they may develop.
It’s also worth noting that mental health disorders aren’t the sole driver behind parents and guardians seeking a child psychologist’s help. Clinical child psychologists treat a wide range of interrelated issues young people experience. These can include biological vulnerabilities, emotional and developmental problems, cognitive deficits, trauma and loss, health-related problems and stress.
What does a child psychologist do?
As a professional psychology specialization, the APA says child psychology uses scientific knowledge to deliver psychological services to infants, toddlers, children and adolescents within their social context. This distinction from other psychology fields matters because children have difficulty explaining the things they’re going through and analyzing their feelings. From the vantage point of a parent or guardian, determining whether a child’s behavior is a normal part of a developmental stage or a sign of an abnormality is equally as difficult.
A child psychologist is trained to help people understand the difference. Professionals in this sphere maintain a firm grasp on children’s basic psychological needs and how family and other social contexts influence their development. They focus on three key areas:
- Physical development refers to the typical sequence of events in a child’s physical capabilities — things like holding their head up, rolling over, crawling, walking and running. Child psychologists can aid pediatricians in observing a child’s physical development. Significant delays in physical development can sometimes reveal other underlying issues that can then be addressed early on.
- Cognitive development is the intellectual learning and thought processes of a child. Language learning, memory, decision making, problem solving and a child’s use of imagination fall under this developmental area. These factors can all be a reflection of both a child’s genetics and their environment.
- Emotional development is all about how a child feels, understands and expresses their emotions. Deeply tied to social development, it’s expressed in very basic emotions — joy, anger, sadness and fear — among young children. More complex emotions like guilt, confidence, hope and pride surface as they age. Helping children understand their emotions can have a powerful impact on overall development and relationship skills later in life.
Child psychologists teach children important coping skills for managing their emotions while helping them progress through each new developmental stage. They are especially skilled at identifying abnormalities early on. A child psychologist can also help detect the roots of common behavioral issues and assist children in working through any early childhood trauma they may have experienced.
Where do child psychologists work?
These practitioners can work in a range of environments, including schools, community health centers, hospitals, research centers and private practices. They typically work in their own offices where they meet with patients either in person or virtually.
A child psychologist may work on their own or as part of a team. Even if assessments and consultations are conducted solo, they often are required to report on a child’s progress to parents, teachers, doctors or the court.
What skills do child psychologists need?
A child psychologist career requires a unique blend of hard and soft skills. The technical knowledge and procedures required for the job must be complemented by strong emotional intelligence.
The APA identifies the following methods and skills as essential for child psychologists:
- Assessment (e.g., psychological, intellectual, cognitive and behavioral testing and evaluation)
- Intervention (e.g., psychotherapy and behavior management)
- Development of prevention programs (e.g., bullying, addictions, teen pregnancy, obesity)
- Consultation with other professionals working with children
- Design and utilization of research
In addition to these proficiencies, the best child psychologists often possess the following qualities:
- Written and oral communication
How to become a child psychologist
While there may be some opportunities in child psychology for those with a master’s degree, most clinical positions will require candidates to be educated at the doctoral level. We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 8,000 clinical psychologist job openings.* That data revealed that 86 percent of employers sought candidates with a doctoral degree.
All psychologists in clinical practice must obtain proper licensure. While licensing laws vary by state and by type of position, most clinical and counseling roles require a doctorate in psychology, an internship and one to two years of supervised professional experience.
Another essential step to becoming a child psychologist is passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Many states also require candidates to pass a jurisprudence exam to assess understanding of state laws related to practicing psychology. Child psychologists can expect to complete continuing education courses in order to maintain licensure.
Start your journey toward a child psychologist career
There are a number of different fields of psychology you could pursue for your career. But if you’re passionate about helping children maintain their health and happiness through assessment, prevention and intervention, you could thrive as a child psychologist.
Interested in taking the next step? You’ll probably need to pursue additional training. Depending on where you are in your educational journey, you may be starting your path toward a psychology career from different points.
Haven’t earned an undergraduate degree yet? Check out UMass Global’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a Child Psychology concentration program. Already have a bachelor’s degree? Learn how you could continue working toward your career goals with a graduate-level education by considering the Master of Arts in Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy program.
*Source: Burning-glass.com (analysis of 8,131 clinical psychologist job postings from May 01, 2021 – Apr. 30, 2022)
Become a Student
Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?