How to Become a Child Therapist: A Guide

Whether as a mental health counseling patient or a mental health care professional, there is no denying that the right therapeutic resources can change lives. Yet adults are not the only ones who may need special attention or can benefit from therapy. Children’s mental health is often overlooked, but kids also experience stress, loss, and psychological issues. It’s easy to think a child is fine because they’re typically carefree and happy, but many kids have needs that may require therapy. In fact, in light of COVID-19, UNICEF reported that more than 1 in 7 adolescents worldwide have a diagnosed mental condition. The thing is, child therapy is vastly different from other forms of clinical mental health counseling, since therapists are dealing with varying developmental differences. Read on to see what it takes to become a child psychotherapist.

How Child Therapy Works

Child therapists focus on children and adolescent patients, specifically working with children experiencing emotional and cognitive issues. These can come from a wide variety of reasons, whether it’s trauma, stress, feelings of loss, a disability, a physical illness, a developmental delay, a mental health issue, and/or social problems. The goal of a child’s mental health counselor is to work with the child patient and the family to help them as best as possible. 

Child therapists tend to have assessment sessions where they can see what’s going on with the child before discussing problem areas with parents or caregivers. This also allows therapists to get a sense of the child’s family and friends dynamics. Post-session, they’ll go over what they see so far with parental care. Child counselors need to actively encourage parents to be involved with what’s happening with their children and should be maintaining communication with parents regularly through progress reports, parenting suggestions, and ways to help improve the child patient’s behavior at school, in their home, and beyond.

For adults, therapy might take a while, but they can open up to problems happening in their life more easily than kids. Adults are more okay with sitting on a couch or chair and talking. They have the cognitive awareness to be able to openly express their problems, whether that’s past trauma, current issues in their marriage, fears of the future, or what have you. 

Children, however,  look at the world differently because of their developmental level. They don’t have the same level of understanding as adults. Kids are not going to sit still on a couch and announce their problems, ponder over insights, or deal  with things thoughtfully. They want to play – they’re children! This is why many child counseling centers have playful environments, filled with toys and art, so it doesn’t even feel like therapy. It lets child patients feel comfortable enough with a new stranger to begin opening up a little bit, which might take more time than with adults. 

Basics to Consider in Studying to be a Child Therapist

If you’re thinking of becoming a child therapist or psychologist, it might seem obvious, but a love for children is a necessity. You have to want to see children learn, mature, and grow. You have to be able to communicate well with children, as well as communicate well with their family or caregivers, working with them to create support plans that help progress the child’s mental health and wellness. Child counselors also have to be willing to consult with other professionals, either in their field or in child development and care. This means teachers, education professionals, social workers, childcare workers, other physicians, counselors, and so on. Kids who are “acting out” at home are likely doing it at school, daycare, summer camp, and so on. And while you’re dealing with the child patient and other professionals, you also have to encourage parental participation, which can run the gamut from very involved to not at all. 

It’s not enough to understand child development or just provide care – you have to be empathetic while also detaching yourself from the emotions, as well as have excellent interpersonal skills and a caring, positive attitude. Many of the kids coming to child counseling have experienced severe trauma, which can be particularly demanding for therapists. That said, many child therapists report immense satisfaction in their jobs. According to a 207 report from the American Psychological Association, a whopping 93 percent of the approximately 187,000 psychologists in the U.S. workforce reported they were “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their jobs!

One unique thing to remember about being a child’s licensed professional counselor is the decor, which tends to be pretty different from the therapy office setups that therapists for adults have. Read up on counseling office decor and other therapy office essentials to make sure your office is ready for your clientele.

Becoming a Child Therapist

While many child therapists have their own private practice or work with other family and marriage counseling private practices, many child therapists work within school systems, at juvenile detention centers, and in probation offices. Others works directly with or for pediatricians and pediatric hospitals. As with any therapy, folks interested in becoming a child’s mental health professional would need to earn a master’s in social work as well as certifications and hours for practicing therapy. It helps to study child psychology, adolescent psychology, counseling psychology, or developmental psychology in undergrad, but upper-level courses are likely going to specialize in early clinical child development, adolescent development, behavioral childhood issues, perceptual development, clinical psychology, applied psychology, forensic psychology, cognitive development, art therapy, language development, interpersonal relations, and more.  

During graduate-level coursework and hours, therapy students will likely have courses or on-hands experience around family therapy, play therapy, crisis intervention, grief and loss, hospitalized infant development, and family abuse, among others. Doctoral programs ask students to carry out original research which revolves around these kinds of topics. 

Post-school, you’ll still have to have supervised hours and more to gain a license. Every state maintains its own boards of health care, which require different licensure requirements for child therapists depending on where you live. However, few states offer separate specialty licenses for child therapists. Instead, it’s more likely you’ll earn the title of LMFT or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, which encompasses more areas of study even if you end up specializing only in child therapy. 

All kids deserve the opportunity to grow, explore, laugh, play, and learn. They deserve that level of happiness – and by identifying mental health issues or behavioral problems early, therapy and child therapists can help to put a stop to or further prevent these issues from becoming long-term problems that carry with them into adulthood, leading to happier, healthier adults in the future.