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How to Become a Child Psychologist

Child psychologists attend specifically to the psychological needs of children and adolescents. Some major areas that they pay attention to include personality, cognitive development, language development, social growth, genetics, gender roles, and sexual development. The field of study is sometimes referred to in academic circles as developmental psychology, as much of the content is concerned with normal/abnormal development in various areas of growth. Programs that prepare you to pursue a career as a child psychologist are more clinically focused than those of their counterpart developmental psychology, which focuses more on research. There are different kinds of child psychologists, requiring different levels of education, training and licensing. While there are some opportunities in the field available for those with only a master’s degree, most find a doctoral degree multiplies their job opportunities (namely a Ph.D. or a PsyD in either clinical or counseling psychology).

Graduate Program in Child Psychology

In graduate studies, the curricula is mostly made up of advanced coursework in psychological theories and research, and may require a thesis or special capstone project. This can require extensive research and study into an area of the field that you are interested in, intended to be a platform for you to show your capacity to add to the scientific body of knowledge. A thesis is generally produced in pursuit of both a master’s degree and a doctoral degree, requiring that you defend your dissertation to a board. After one completes their degree at long last, (or depending on the program, it may be a requirement for completion) they must next complete a supervised clinical internship which usually lasts two years, as well as pass state and national tests appropriate to their place of residence.

Some subspecialties of child psychology that one might be interested in exploring through their supervised internship can include abnormal child psychology, adolescent psychologist, school psychologist, educational psychologist, or developmental psychologist. This helps to give those in-training an idea of what a child psychologist does during actual days on the job. This varies depending on where they work, which is often either in hospitals, schools, courts, private practice, or mental health clinics. One’s area of specialty will often be reflected through their choice in setting. For example, those working with juveniles in the court setting or criminal justice system, often have a focus on preventing recidivism, identifying maladaptive home settings, and preparing them to testify. They may work with children experiencing life-threatening illness, those in the foster-care system, those of children of active-service members, the list goes on.

Working as a Child Psychologist

Child psychologists often work directly with children and their primary caregivers to assess, treat and cope with any psychological illnesses or developmental issues, working to create a healthy emotional life for the growing child, or to cope with an ongoing crisis. Although popular culture sometimes dictates that childhood is meant to be a time of innocence and play, it is also a crucial and very complex period of life, which lays life-long roots for how one interacts, produces, copes, fails and succeeds. This realm of psychology provides mental health assessments focused on short-term treatments for children, often sought by parents or at the bequest of teachers, to help teach children learn skills for coping with stresses such as death, divorce, and transition. They may help with a variety of developmental issues, anything from learning disabilities to varying degrees of mental illness. Common areas of treatment include attention difficulties, autism, obsessive-compulsive, phobias, adjustment disorders.

Depending on the role, a child psychologist could work with children of all ages, starting with young infants, toddlers, children, and generally ending with adolescents. With the trend of today’s “childhood” lasting longer into young adulthood, some professionals in this field may choose to allow their college-aged clients to continue treatment. No matter the age, the focus is to take on the critical role of understanding what’s going on in a child’s life, working to enhance the good while diagnosing and minimizing the maladaptive.

Child psychologists assist children in learning to work through and manage their emotions such as affection, hostility, anxiety, prejudice, feeling and thinking, as well as instating and emphasizing the role of compassion in the development of emotional maturity. Everyone is different, which is why creating a unique treatment plan for each client is a key part of the job. It is important to avoid imposing feelings on one’s clients, both children and adults. This is particularly imperative to avoid doing when treating children, as they are incredibly plastic and suggestible to influence. Telling them how to feel can have unexpected consequences, and it is instead better to act as a mirror, communicating reflectively to help them mature their emotional intelligence, learning through example how to better cope with intense feelings.

Valuable characteristics of individuals seeking to pursue child psychology is the ability to feel calm, understand and relate well to others, and capacity to form strong bonds. Part of the challenge for the child psychologist is when the parents’ behaviors or circumstances are what are impacting the child, as it can sometimes be difficult to establish an effective line of communication. Sometimes the problem may be that there is an emotional disconnect between the parents and their child. Through therapy, parents can learn to help their child regulate their emotion and connect with their needs and idiosyncrasies. An important task entrusted to child psychologists is of being sensitive to identifying signs of when children are victims of abuse. It can be an emotionally-charged experience to deal with kids who have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused. The signs can be subtle and easy to miss, but identifying instances and intervening can prevent a great deal of further damage. Practitioners use a variety of treatment methods, many of which resemble therapeutic routes used in treating adults.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach that has been found to have greater efficacy than solely medications in improving patients’ symptoms of depression and anxiety, working to establish a mental tool box to solve life’s problems in healthy and productive ways while planting the roots of resiliency, enabling individuals to be more capable of facing the challenges of daily life and better able to bounce back from a setback. Strengthening emotional intelligence is a worthy goal in both children and adults alike, although acquiring and improving skills early is certainly beneficial.

Listening to and acknowledging a child’s emotions can make them feel heard and more capable of calming themselves. This involves empathizing with what they are thinking and feeling. Giving a name to the feeling they are experiencing is a helpful tool, as learning about something, especially something you struggle with, helps to give a sense of control over the emotionally-provoking unknowns.

Children have such flexible minds, so quickly and constantly growing, with many of the ways that they learn to interact with the world are instated in these early years. They do not have a fully formed pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with executive function and self-regulation. Meaning, sometimes children experience unpredictable emotions, as they haven’t learned how to regulate the effects the emotions have on their body. This is often manifested in the form of anger; say something didn’t go their way, and instead of reasonably reacting, they are overcome with emotion, which emerges as a tantrum.

The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology

The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, a division of the APA, acts as a professional organization for those in the field. It can be a helpful resource for those embarking on the process of becoming a professional in the field. Licensing consists of an examination both multiple choice and written. Finally, one must become board certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which entails submitting your qualifications to be cleared to sit for an examination. This exam is the qualifier for professional practice in psychology known as the EPPP, a 225-question multiple choice test on the core areas of psychology developed by the ASPPB. It covers constructs on assessment and diagnosis, social and biological bases of behavior, with the required passing score threshold varying by state. Some states additionally have an oral examination process. These organizations issue information and checklists through their websites, which can be a great place to start if you are interested in learning more about becoming a child psychologist.