What does a child psychologist do?

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What is a Child Psychologist?

Child psychologists are mental health professionals who specialize in understanding the processes of child development from infancy through adolescence.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is regarded as the founder of modern child psychology. From the 1920s onwards, his work supported the idea that children and adults think differently from each other. He asserted that throughout the course of their childhood, children pass through distinct stages of emotional and mental development. He also proposed that intellectual development is closely linked to emotional, social, and physical development.

These tenets form the foundation of the child psychologist’s work – the work of helping children and adolescents learn to better cope with life and manage emotional and behavioral issues, social relationships, and mental health conditions.

What does a Child Psychologist do?

A child psychologist using child-centered play therapy with a young patient.

There are five main areas covered within child psychology. The work of the child psychologist draws from a deep understanding of each of them.

These are the three sub-areas of child development:

  • Physical development refers to the typical sequence of events in a child’s physical capabilities – things like holding their head up, rolling over, crawling, walking, and running. Child psychologists can aid pediatricians in observing a child’s physical development. Significant delays in physical development can sometimes reveal other underlying issues that can then be addressed early on.
  • Cognitive development refers to the intellectual learning and thought processes of a child. Language learning, memory, decision making, problem solving, and a child’s use of imagination fall under this developmental area. These factors can all be a reflection of both a child’s genetics and environment.
  • Emotional development is all about how a child feels, understands, and expresses their emotions. Deeply tied to social development, it’s expressed in very basic emotions – joy, anger, sadness, and fear – among young children. More complex emotions like guilt, confidence, hope, and pride surface as they age. Helping children understand their emotions can have a powerful impact on overall development and relationship skills later in life.

Developmental milestones are an important way for psychologists to measure a child’s progress in several key developmental areas. They act as checkpoints in a child’s development to determine what the average child is able to do at a particular age. Knowing the milestones for different ages helps child psychologists understand normal child development and aids in identifying potential problems with delayed development. For example, a child who is 12 months old can typically stand and support their weight by holding onto something. Some children at this age can even walk. If a child reaches 18 months of age but still cannot walk, it might indicate a problem that needs further investigation.

These are the four main categories of developmental milestones:

  • Physical milestones pertain to the development of both the gross and fine motor skills.
  • Cognitive or mental milestones refer to the child’s developmental aptitude for thinking, learning, and solving problems.
  • Social and emotional milestones pertain to the child’s ability to express emotion and respond to social interaction.
  • Communication and language milestones involve the child’s development of verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

Behavioral issues are the most common reason that parents seek the help of child psychologists. The possible roots of behavioral issues are diverse, ranging from brain disorders and genetics to diet, family dynamics, and stress. These issues can be temporary problems linked to stressful situations such as divorce or a death in the family, or they can involve a pattern of sustained hostile, aggressive, or disruptive behaviors that are not appropriate for the child’s age.

Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are, understanding how and why they occur, recognizing one’s own feelings and those of others, and developing strategies to manage them. This process begins in infancy when babies learn to express joy, anger, sadness, and fear. It progresses as children start to develop a sense of self and communicate more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, elation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, and empathy.

Some children find it more difficult than others to express or regulate emotions. The work of the child psychologist is to identify why and then come up with ways to help their patients accept their feelings and understand how they are linked to behavior.

Socialization is the process of developing awareness of social norms and values. It is how children acquire the knowledge and skills that enable them to effectively relate to others and to contribute in positive ways to family, school, and community. Socialization, of course, is ongoing, but childhood is a critical period in this process.

The quality of the relationship that a child has with their parents or primary caregivers has a profound effect on later social development. With their peers and through play, they learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions and acquire skills for managing conflict, such as turn-taking, compromise, and bargaining.

Factors that can contribute to an inability to develop age-appropriate social skills include everything from the amount of love and affection the child receives to the socio-economic status of the family. Children who fail to properly socialize have difficulty creating and sustaining satisfying relationships – a limitation many carry into adulthood.

Armed with the discerning knowledge and skills that come with studying the interconnected domains of child psychology discussed above, the child psychologist is able to help treat the following conditions and situations faced by children and adolescents:

  • Abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or child neglect
  • Anger issues
  • Coping with a new diagnosis or living with a chronic illness
  • Coping with divorce or other family issues
  • Developmental and learning differences, including attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, and communication disorders
  • Disruptive behavior disorders, including conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder
  • Eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder
  • Grief and loss
  • Identity and self-esteem issues, including body dysmorphic disorder and gender dysphoria
  • Mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems in social contexts
  • Sleep disorders, including, insomnia, nightmares, and sleep anxiety
  • Stress related to big life changes, including moving, attending a new school, or the birth of a sibling

Due to differences in age, cognitive levels, and maturity, children who need psychological therapy are treated differently from adults. Child psychologists can use several different therapy techniques based on each child’s age and unique situation. In some cases, they may work with the child’s parents or guardians to help with parenting skills and how to best address particular child behaviors.

These are some common therapies used by child psychologists:

  • Art therapy
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Child-centered play therapy
  • Child-parent relationship therapy
  • Child anger management therapy
  • Child trauma therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) – a modified type of CBT; its main goals are to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others
  • Emotionally focused therapy
  • Group therapy or family therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)

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What is the workplace of a Child Psychologist like?

Child psychologists work in a broad range of settings, including elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, health practitioners’ offices, residential institutions, human services agencies, child welfare offices, juvenile correctional facilities, university research institutes, legal and court settings, and private practice.

Child psychologists typically enjoy a standard five-day work week, but they must be prepared to work on weekends, holidays, or late hours if a client is in crisis. An office is the most common work environment for child psychologists. However, they may find themselves providing assessments and interventions in more public settings, as dictated by specific circumstances. They may encounter uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations if working with a disturbed or violent child.

Child Psychologists are also known as:
Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist Clinical Child Psychologist Child and Adolescent Psychologist