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Child and Adolescent Psychology Careers – Everything You Need to Know

February 16, 2021 | Staff Writers

Child Psychologist
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Childhood is an incredibly important and influential period in a person’s life. The experiences a young child has and the way they internalize those experiences will have a massive impact on child development and the type of person they will become later in life.

Adolescent or pediatric psychology is a specialized branch of psychology used to help treat and assess children. Just as traditional psychologists use their training to help clients work through and overcome behavioral, intellectual, and cognitive disorders, a licensed child psychologist evaluates children and adolescents for mental health issues and connects them with professionals that can help support their development.

While licensed clinical child psychologists require a doctorate in psychology and a specialization in treating children, there are actually a wide range of career opportunities in research, education, and many other fields for those with a background in child development.

To help explain everything you need to know about careers in child and adolescent psychology, we have provided this in-depth guide. We will explain everything from what child psychologists do, to how you can become a child psychologist yourself.

We will also explore some of the many careers available to those with a formal education in child and adolescent psychology. We hope that this guide will help inspire you to pursue a career in this rewarding and exciting field.

What is Childhood and Adolescent Psychology?

As mentioned above, child psychology is a specialized branch of traditional psychology. As the name suggests, it focuses on behavioral health in children, in particular, their mental and emotional development. In recent years, psychology that focuses on children and adolescents has exploded in popularity and is quickly becoming one of the most commonly studied varieties of psychology.

When it comes to applying child psychology, there is no specific age bracket for those receiving treatment. Child and adolescent psychologists will work with children all the way from birth to their adolescence, since behavioral health is so important to child development.

In the past, it was believed that children did not need to see a psychologist. All children were seen as malleable and any behavioral or emotional issues were just seen as a symptom of poor parenting and a lack of discipline. We now understand that children can benefit greatly from the emotional and mental support that can be offered by a psychologist that specializes in helping children work through their emotional and mental development.

What Do Child and Adolescent Psychologists Do?

Child and adolescent psychologists can help identify and treat a wide range of issues and disorders that affect children and their families. 

They do so by administering a variety of psychological tests that are tailored specifically towards children. They will also study their patients by engaging in therapy sessions with the particular child, their family, and other relevant individuals.

The work of a child psychologist can be carried out from a private practice, within a school setting, in hospitals, from government offices, and more.

When a child is being taken to visit a child psychologist, they will first undergo an assessment phase. The assessment phase is used to understand the particular issue that is impacting the child’s development. From there, the child psychologist will determine how the issue can be treated. This is known as the treatment phase, which is when the psychologist, the child, and the parents will work together to resolve or improve the issue.

How Does Child Psychology Differ from Traditional Psychology?

For starters, the emotional, mental, and behavioral disorders that can impact children are much different than those that affect adults. Not only do children have different psychological needs than adults, conversing with children in an effective way requires a very unique set of communication skills. 

Not only does the study of children require specialized communication skills, working with children can be difficult in other ways. For starters, children easily tire and get bored, so traditional treatment options can be impractical. To overcome these obstacles, many child psychologists will know how to make therapy interesting and fun whenever they can. Child psychologists will use different assessment tools than their adult psychologist counterparts. Toys and playtime can be used to study how their patients behave and react to various situations. 

While psychologists that work with adults do not necessarily have to have a sub-specialty, child and adolescent psychologists often undergo additional education and training to learn how to work with children.

Developmental Psychology:

Since child and adolescent psychology examines the influence of both nature and nurture on a child’s development, it is often considered a form of developmental psychology. Practitioners aim to study and explain why a child thinks and behaves the way they do.

By studying the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development of their young patients, child psychologists are able to coordinate the care and recovery each child needs to develop in a healthier way.

Why is Child Psychology Important? 

As mentioned above, helping children and young adults understand their emotions and work through psychological issues can have a powerful impact on their current situation and their future emotional development.

Child psychologists can help children express their emotions in much healthier ways. This healthier emotional and behavioral development can help children navigate through life and develop much healthier social relationships as they mature.

This is why the field can be so rewarding for those that study child and adolescent psychology. By identifying psychological issues in children, they can be treated before they have chance to hinder a child’s development. Helping children work through trauma and overcome any behavioral issues is incredibly important, especially given that it can influence the type of adult that child will grow into later in life.

Why Should You Pursue a Career in the Field of Child Psychology?

If the idea of working with children and helping them with their emotional and behavioral development appeals to you, it is possible that pursuing a career in the field of child psychology could be perfect for you.

Due to the nature of their work, child psychologists tend to be empathetic people that have natural listening and communication skills. While these skills will be honed and improved throughout a child psychology education, those that enjoy communicating with others and helping them work through their thoughts and feelings are often a great fit for the field.

All types of psychologists also use problem-solving skills to diagnose various disorders, so if you are someone that enjoys figuring out complex puzzles, any career in the field of psychology will be exciting and interesting for you.

Naturally empathetic people find the field of childhood psychology to be incredibly rewarding. By pursuing a career in child or adolescent psychology, you will be helping children and their parents on a near-daily basis. You will also build relationships with your patients and their families, which can offer countless rewards for those that enjoy connecting with people.

Overall, child and adolescent psychology can be one of the most rewarding career paths a person can follow. Empathetic individuals will enjoy connecting with others and helping them work through issues that could otherwise negatively impact their entire life. Meticulous individuals that enjoy solving problems and keeping detailed records will also find the multi-layered nature of psychological work incredibly interesting and stimulating. 

The truth is that a career in child psychology offers much more than a paycheck. It offers the opportunity to work with children, help others, and resolve complicated problems. If any of this appeals to you, it could be the perfect field for you.

What Training and Degrees Do You Need to Become a Child Psychologist?

To become a certified child psychologist, an individual must obtain at least a master’s degree in psychology. To practice clinical child psychology, a student would have to earn a full PhD in psychology. 

Throughout their education, the aspiring child psychologist would participate in various clinical internships and practicums. While these would be built into their program, they would also need post-graduation experience and fieldwork to obtain a full license and professional certification. These requirements vary from state to state and can differ drastically from one country to the next.

Licensure for Child Psychologists:

As mentioned above, each state has its own specific licensing requirements for professional child psychologists. To obtain a license to practice child psychology, a professional psychologist would have to have the necessary education to meet the requirements of the particular state where they plan to practice.

For starters, almost every state requires a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited college or university. There are also standardized tests that must be passed in order to demonstrate competency in the core subjects of child psychology. Most states also require aspiring child psychologists to accrue a minimum number of hours of supervised experience working in a clinical setting.

While there is no question that becoming a licensed clinical child psychologist is a lengthy and challenging process, there are many other careers an individual can pursue with a formal background in child psychology.

Career Options for Someone with a Background in Child and Adolescent Psychology

You do not have to become a full clinical child psychologist to use the skills you would obtain with an education in child psychology. Pursuing a formal education in child psychology can open the door to a wide variety of exciting career paths.

For example, many child and adolescent psychology majors use their knowledge of mental health to pursue careers in research and counseling. The following areas are just some of the fields where those with child psychology backgrounds can obtain employment:

Clinical Practice: 

Even if a person does not pursue their child psychology education all the way through to the PhD level, they could still work in a clinical setting. There are plenty of jobs available in the world of private practice. Child psychologists need assistants and researchers and they tend to strongly favor applicants that also have a background in the field.

Counseling Positions:

Counselors work with their clients to help them alter behaviors that negatively impact their lives. In many situations, the behavior of a parent can affect the lives of their children, which is where a counselor with a background in child psychology could help.

Counselors and therapists can specialize in assisting specific types of patients, such as young families and their children. There are plenty of counseling careers available to those that have a formal education in child psychology. They can obtain employment in mental health centers, hospitals, substance abuse facilities, and more.

Social Services:

There are plenty of social service programs and organizations that aim to improve the lives of families and children. An individual with a background in child psychology can be an incredibly useful resource for a family with small children that is reaching out for support from their community’s social services network.

Some social services workers provide counseling services for young children and help them with their unique needs. There are plenty of government-funded social service jobs that are suited for someone with an education in child psychology. On top of that, there are countless non-profit organizations that specifically look for job applicants that possess a formal psychology education. 

Careers in Education: 

Psychologists and therapists are often used throughout the education system to help identify learning disabilities and behavioral issues in young students. Educators want children to succeed academically, so if a person has a psychology background that can help students learn better, a school system will look to hire them.

Then, of course, a background in child psychology is a major advantage for anyone that wants to pursue a teaching career. Knowing how to help students develop can make a person an incredibly effective teacher. Many people that have a background in child psychology will go on to work various administrative positions in their local education system.

Rehabilitation Therapy:

A background in child psychology can be really helpful for those that work with children that are overcoming cognitive disabilities brought on by physical trauma. The rehabilitation field uses a wide variety of research to help patients live with acquired cognitive disabilities.

Children that experienced traumatic brain injuries often require help from trained professionals in order to move forward with their lives. A person with a background in child psychology would be really well equipped to help young patients adapt to their injuries and live more independent lives than would otherwise be possible. 

These careers exist in schools, hospitals, and rehabilitation clinics.

How Do You Start a Career in Child and Adolescent Psychology?

As explained above, earning a degree in child and adolescent psychology can open the door to many different career opportunities. While the option is always there to pursue child psychology to completion and become a full licensed clinical child psychologist, that is not necessary to gain employment in a related career.

Just with a bachelor’s degree in child psychology, you can work numerous jobs in rewarding fields. If you complete a master’s program in child psychology, you can start to qualify for certain positions that allow you to put your child psychology skills to work more directly. A master’s degree would allow you to apply for various therapy and counseling positions and it could give you a competitive edge if you wanted to pursue a career in management.

With a full doctoral degree in child psychology, you can complete the necessary clinical placements and obtain the relevant license requirements to become a full clinical psychologist or therapist. With a PhD, you could even become a post-secondary educator yourself.

Pursuing an Education in Child Psychology

The first place to start if you are looking for a career that is related to child and adolescent psychology is pursuing a relevant education. Most reputable colleges and universities will offer child psychology programs. Each school will have different admission requirements for program applicants, so it is up to the individual to make sure they qualify.

There are three levels of education a person can pursue in the field of child psychology – a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctoral degree. While they are progressively difficult to complete, each level will unlock more career options.

A Bachelor’s Degree in Child and Adolescent Psychology:

This is the first level of education a person can complete. With most schools, a child psychology bachelor’s degree requires four years of full-time study to complete.

Most of these programs will give students a thorough background in child psychology. Students will explore the main concepts of psychology and learn how they can be related to children and pediatric development. 

Many child psychology bachelor’s programs will also have some sort of internship component, which will allow the students to experience how the concepts they learn are applied in the field.

A Master’s Degree in Child and Adolescent Psychology:

After a student has completed a bachelor’s degree in child psychology, they can apply to enter a master’s program. More often than not, these programs last between one and two years of full-time study. 

Master’s students will expand on what they learned during their bachelor’s program by taking classes in developmental psychology, social psychology, and cognitive process. These classes will be much more advanced than those they completed at the bachelor’s level. Specialized courses will even prepare students for the particular segment of the child psychology field they hope to enter.

As with most master’s programs, a child psychology master’s will have a heavy research component. Some programs are split in half between in-class learning and independent research.

A PhD in Child and Adolescent Psychology:

Those students that successfully complete a master’s degree and meet the grade requirements for further study can then apply for a doctoral degree in child psychology.

At most schools, PhD programs consist of two to three years of coursework in fairly complex subjects, such as neuropsychology, advanced inferential statistics, and quantitative analysis. After passing the relevant comprehensive exams, the prospective PhD candidate would then develop a thesis on a particular research topic. Not only will the student have to research and write their dissertation, it will have to be successfully defended in front of a panel of professors. Usually, the dissertation process will take between two and four years to complete.

Is it Worth Pursuing a Career in the Field of Child Psychology From a Financial Perspective?

If you are looking to pursue an education in child and adolescent psychology strictly because you want to earn an impressive salary, you might want to take a look at other fields. That is not to say that the earning potential for those entering the field of child psychology is low, but it is a field that requires hard work, empathy, and dedication.

Whether you only study at the undergraduate level, or continue your education all the way through to the point of earning a PhD in child psychology, a degree in this field will prepare you for a career that helps young people and their families live happier and healthier lives. This is why careers in this field tend to work out best for those that are interested in less tangible rewards than just figures on a salary contract.

Salaries and Employment Statistics in the Field of Child Psychology: 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American psychologists earned a median annual salary of just over $80,000 in 2019. They also projected an impressive job growth of about 14 percent between the years of 2018 and 2028, which is higher than most fields.

While child psychology occupies a specific sub-field of psychology, salaries and job growth projections for child psychologists tend to follow the general trend for psychology as a whole.

Whenever you enter any field, it is important to understand that salaries and benefits will vary significantly depending on the workplace, the individual’s education and specialization, geographic location, and the number of years of experience that person already has in the field. 

Increasing Earning Potential with Relevant Work Experience:

As you will find in most fields, those working in the field of child and adolescent psychology tend to earn more as they gain field experience. Relevant work experience will always compliment an education in child psychology, which is why it is so important for students to take on as many internships and clinical placements as they can.

Many aspiring child psychologists find that they can improve their job prospects by volunteering their time in relevant settings. Since the field involves working with children, it is also helpful if a person has experience doing so.

Since child psychology is used in so many different settings, it can also be useful to work and volunteer for similar organizations before you enter the field as a fully educated professional. Hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, trauma shelters, rehabilitation centers, private psychology practices, research institutions, and government agencies all use child psychology for various purposes, so if you have some idea of where you where you would like to work, you can get a head start on your career by volunteering for that particular type of organization.

Child and Adolescent Psychology Education and Career Resources 

Aspiring child psychologists and others that would like to pursue a career in the field can access a wide variety of resources that will help them throughout each stage of their journey. There are numerous organizations, research journals, and conferences that are easily accessible and offer useful guidance and training opportunities. 

Those that are interested in pursuing a career in the field of child psychology can also help themselves by researching admission requirements for programs they plan on applying to. Even if a person has not completed their education, it can be helpful to consult relevant job boards to see what sort of workplace experience hiring managers are looking for. 

Remember, membership in professional organizations and relevant volunteer experience can also afford a person valuable networking opportunities. You should always try to speak with practicing professionals and express your own interest in their field, as most will be willing to offer their advice.

The following resources can help you on your journey towards a career in the field of child and adolescent psychology:

American Psychological Association

The American Psychological Association, or APA, is the governing body for many specializations in the field of psychology. They offer accreditation and oversee various regional professional bodies.  If you are interested in the field, it can be worthwhile to spend some time navigating their website and familiarizing yourself with the incredible amount of information they can offer aspiring child psychologists. 

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology

This membership-based organization supports individuals in the field of psychology by providing advocacy, job boards, research publications, and regional chapters. By becoming an AACAP member, you could gain access to career-related advice, job listings, local research conferences, networking events, and learn about issues that are specific to child psychology. 

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