Child psychologists have a special interest in working with children and have earned a graduate degree in psychology. In most places, there is no clear distinction between a psychologist generally and one who focuses on young people because, in the US, there is no specialized degree in this field. Professionals who wish to work with children will often focus their studies on the psychological development of kids and related issues, and in most cases, these specialists will have completed doctoral research or a thesis on a similar topic.
Counseling and Treatment
The most common job for a child psychologist is as a counselor, in a clinical setting, diagnosing and treating patients. When working as a counselor, he or she will usually alter traditional therapy approaches so they are more appropriate for children. This means that the psychologist may use play, art, or music, especially when working with young children, who typically lack the ability to analyze their problems in the same way that adults do. With older children, a counselor may use a number of other methods, many of which are also used in therapy geared towards adults, including talk therapy and role-playing.
Clinical psychologists assess children and use a range of treatments, including therapy, to treat them. They may use diagnostic tests to determine if a young patient has a condition like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability. Many study how a child's behavior affects his or her physical health, and help the patient and his or her family learn to live healthier lives. Others work with patients who have brain injuries or other physical problems related to the brain that may affect their behavior.
It's important to note that, in most cases, a psychologist cannot prescribe medication. Typically, only psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, can write prescriptions. A psychologist may, however, help a child and the child's family cope with medications he or she is taking. If a counselor believes that a child would benefit from a prescription, he or she may refer the patient to a pediatrician or psychiatrist who can evaluate the child and determine whether or not medication is an appropriate treatment.
It is also common for people in this field to work as researchers, often in areas centered on learning theory and cognitive development. A developmental psychologist may be part of a research team that examines learning disabilities, for example, and comes up with new tests to evaluate child development. A health psychologist may research topics like teen pregnancy or drug and alcohol abuse and work on programs that aim to reduce these problems.
Some child psychologists act as social workers and work with children and families that need immediate assistance. They may help ease the transition of a family that has been apart for a while, or they may help neglectful or abusive parents learn new skills. This way, children can often be returned to a safe home environment. Others may assist families in finding and qualifying for assistance to help make sure the children get enough to eat, are well clothed, and are attending school. In some cases, a psychologist who works as a social worker may take on some counseling duties as he or she helps a child handle a difficult family situation.
In the Legal System
Government agencies may employ some child psychologists to evaluate children who have been victims of crimes or who have committed crimes. In this capacity, they may give testimony as to the impact that a crime may have had on a child. A forensic child psychologist may work with a child who has been a witness to a crime, helping him or her remember what happened accurately. Others may help the court understand the reasons behind certain behaviors if a child is on trial for a crime.
Child psychologists often work in schools to help children struggling with family or educational issues. They can work as advisers to school districts, where they may help form special education programs or develop individualized education programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities. Someone in this job must also be aware of how changes in a child's behavior can indicate a more serious problem, such as abuse in the home or bullying. He or she may work directly with teachers or the school administration to address student behavior generally, teaching methods, and other concerns.
Writing and Teaching
Many professionals turn to a career in writing after spending many years as therapists or researchers. A well-written explanation of a certain aspect of child development, or of a specific mental disorder that affects children, can be an important guide for parents and other professionals. Some experts may write books for children that can help them get through difficult periods in their lives. If such books are well received, the child psychologist may be asked to speak to schools, parent groups, or the media as an expert in the field. Others go into teaching, usually at the college level, helping to train potential new psychologists.
Becoming a Child Psychologist
It usually takes many years of study at the university level to become a psychologist, and most stay in school to earn a doctoral degree. A master's may be all that is required for some jobs, but most employers usually prefer a PhD. After the degree has been granted, a psychologist must still complete many hours of supervised training before being licensed by a state, province, or country. Anyone who is licensed can work with children or adults, and many work with both. An expert who focuses on children usually does not need any specific additional training, simply the desire to work with young people.