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Examining the important role of a child psychologist

November 18, 2019 by University of Massachusetts Global

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. As a result, Americans’ use of mental health care has increased.

It’s unsurprising that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the overall employment of psychologists will grow 14 percent by 2028 — nearly triple the rate of all occupations nationwide. While many of us picture adults when we imagine the typical patient base of a psychologist, it’s important to note that they aren’t the only ones in need. Research shows that nearly half of children will have experienced a mental illness by age 18.

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. Take a look at this breakdown of a child psychologist’s role and why their work is so critical.

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. Yet, just 7 percent of these young people receive appropriate help from qualified mental health professionals.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and behavior disorders are among the most common mental health disorders that can be diagnosed during childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list. Consider the following statistics:

  • 9.4 percent (or 6.1 million) of youth ages 2-17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.
  • 7.4 percent of children ages 3-17 have a diagnosed behavior problem.
  • 7.1 percent 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 one in five children who live below the federal poverty line 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 psychology encompasses 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.

Child psychologists are 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 his or her 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. Child psychologists also help detect the roots of common behavioral issues and assist children in working through any early childhood trauma they may have experienced.

Child psychology professionals can work in a range of environments, including schools, community health centers, hospitals, research centers and private practice. The APA identifies the following procedures 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

How do you become a child psychologist?

While there may be some opportunities in child psychology with a master’s degree, most employers seek candidates who are qualified at the doctoral level. We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 7,000 clinical psychologist job openings from the last year.* Approximately 70 percent of those openings sought candidates with a doctoral degree in the field.

All psychologists in clinical practice must also 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.

The final hurdle to becoming a psychologist is passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Many states also require practicing psychologists to complete continuing education courses 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.

If you’re interested in taking the next step, it might be time to think about furthering your studies. Depending on where you are in your educational journey, you may be starting your path toward a psychology career from different points. If you have yet to earn a bachelor’s degree, visit University of Massachusetts Global’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a Child Psychology concentration program page. Already have a bachelor’s degree? Learn how you could achieve your career goals with a graduate-level education by heading to the Master of Arts in Psychology, Counseling program page.



*Source: Burning-glass.com (analysis of 7,086 clinical psychologist job postings from Oct. 01, 2018 – Sep. 30, 2019)

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