Child psychologists do not have an easy job. They work within school systems, treatment facilities, research labs, social service agencies, and beyond. Working with children can be immensely fulfilling as a career field, and oftentimes soon-to-be-psychologists enter the field because of their love of children. While that is one quality necessary to have for the career field — and can’t be emphasized enough — it is not a career without its own unique obstacles.
To work in the field of child psychology means to engage with children who may have unhealthy behaviors, are victims of abuse, or who live with a disorder. It takes resolve and resilience, as working with children is both delightful and challenging.
As such, child psychologists learn and refine all the skills of every psychologist, all while learning to focus on communicating with, observing, and developing trust with children. This requires a special skill set that balances both scientific hard skills and soft skills, such as empathy and relating to children from a variety of different backgrounds.
What is Child Psychology?
Child psychologists, broadly speaking, offer psychological help to children and adolescents. They consider the mental development of a child and rely on observations to understand their experiences and diagnose accordingly. Children are typically determined to need psychological treatment through behavioral observations from parents, teachers, or school counselors. Problems can range from depression to hyperactivity, or surface as emotional reactions triggered by stressful moments in their lives like the death of a relative, a parent’s divorce, abuse, or abandonment.
What is structurally different about child psychology is that a therapist often works not just one-on-one with a child, but with family members, teachers, and doctors, as well. It’s a more holistic approach that brings together figures from all aspects of a child’s life to better understand their needs and condition. A child psychologist may work in private practice, but also in clinical environments or as researchers in academia and government. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment in the field will increase 19 percent by 2024.
Qualities of a Child Psychologist
Beyond the research, theory, and analytical skills that make up the skill set of a therapist, there must also be a layer of instincts and some harder-to-measure qualities that a child psychologist should have.
These are a few characteristics of a child psychologist that will allow them to work well with their young clients:
- Resilience.:Child psychologists need to be flexible and able to adjust to sometimes erratic behavior. They also need to be able to pivot to new treatment plans as necessary, as well as be relatively unflappable in the face of children who may not be particularly willing to engage or present behavioral challenges. Child psychologists are people comfortable pivoting seamlessly from one client who is playful but anxious, to one who lives with a conduct disorder and tests the abilities of the psychologist.
- Communication: Non-verbal communication skills become more important when working with a child. Unlike an adult, they do not have the developmental maturation to convey emotional information in a session in the same way adult clients do. Understanding their own means of communication and adapting is key to analyzing their behavior and making the best treatment plan for them.
- Playfulness: More than just entertaining a child, playfulness in adults is a model to communicate. Some adults are more likely to keep their sense of play through adulthood, researchers say, and those child psychologists undoubtedly have an advantage when trying to work with children. Play, some say, is the language of children. Knowing to encourage play in children — which can initiate “flow state,” activate emotional regulation, and increase dopamine levels — is also a solid prescription tool and a skill worth building while advancing through a career in child psychology.
- Compassion: Child psychologists should always be empathetic and active listeners. This is a tool for building trust with a child, which is the foundation for all that will follow in the working relationship.
What Skills Are Needed to Be a Child Psychologist
Many qualities of a child psychologist or qualities of a good child counselor are comparable to those of any psychologist, but skills for kids need to be laser-focused. Children, whether young children or adolescents, face a different developmental point in their life. Biologically, and in terms of experiences. Jean Piaget’s theory and stages of cognitive development asserts the theory that humans—children—build on a mental construct of the world that evolves as their brain develops.
Remembering the developmental differences of a child is one key distinction between therapy with a child versus as an adult, and students should keep this in mind as they move through their education and accumulate skills needed to be a child psychologist.
- Analysis: Child psychologists are analytical people who take observations and make appropriate diagnoses out of them. This analysis can be focused on different areas of psychology when working with children, which may include developmental psychology, adolescent psychology, or psychopathology.
- Problem solving: Child psychologists learn a specific set of diagnostic assessments and methods. These are aside from soft skills like communication and listening that are emphasized in a degree program. Therapists must learn the nuances of problems specific to childhood experiences, such as bullying. They will also be accustomed to a more collaborative approach to helping children, working with teachers, parents, social services, and more in order to treat a client. Should they make adolescence their specialty, they will learn the developmental stages of adolescence into young adulthood and apply the theories surrounding them to clients’ cognitive needs.
- Research: Child psychologists will study and discover insights into the subconscious and conscious development of a child. They seek ways to help children cope with anxiety, hyperactivity, and other psychological conditions. Active researchers need to consider the special set of ethical standards for studying children and be able to process basic statistical procedures and equations. Moreover, they should have the tools to apply research in professional practice.
- Observation: This might come naturally to some therapists, but learning what to observe is part of a psychologist’s education in academics and in practice. Child psychologists absorb non-verbal cues to diagnose all sorts of childhood conditions ranging from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Daunting as it may seem to acquire and develop these skills, child psychologists must remember they lead to an end goal of making a remarkable and unforgettable impact on a child’s mental well-being. This may not only improve their circumstance in childhood, but stem off future psychological conditions they need to manage as adults. It is the uniquely rewarding element of working as a child psychologist.
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at National University
National University’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program sets the foundation for entering the field of child psychology, which has licensure requirements that vary by state. What qualifications do you need to become a child psychologist? Most require a doctorate and a set number of hours of supervised work in the field. Child psychologist qualifications may also change whether attempting a psychology Ph.D. or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
The program at National University offers aspiring child psychologists the tools to start their journey on this path, explore their interests, and launch into a long-lasting career working with children and their families.