What is Child Psychology?
Child psychologists study learning patterns, behavioral developments and environmental factors affecting children from infancy through adolescence.
They may specialize in developmental psychology, abnormal psychology or adolescent psychology. Commonly, parents of children who’ve suffered trauma or who have physical, mental or learning disabilities seek help from child psychologists.
Professionals in this field can work as counselors, advisors or researchers for social, academic, corporate or community programs. Here, we'll take a closer look at the practice of child psychology and how to maximize opportunities in the field.
What Does a Child Psychologist Do?
Many child psychologists work in private practices, often collaborating with academic and healthcare professionals. Outside of clinics, child psychologists may work in the court system, daycares, elementary and secondary schools, government organizations, hospitals or research facilities, depending upon their specialty. The following core skills are typical of successful individuals in the field:
Skills & Competencies
- Strong Communication and Observation
- Complex Problem-Solving
- Analytical Evaluation
- Motivation to Help Others
Various concentrations address different patient needs based on age or specific psychological or behavioral issue. The following sections give an in-depth look at the three primary concentrations in child psychology:
Areas of Expertise in Child Psychology
Adolescent psychologists work with patients between the ages of 12 and 18. They examine issues relevant to teenagers.
Examples of Issues Examined
- Anger management
- Eating disorders
- Learning disabilities
Psychologists develop a system of therapeutic techniques and behavior modifications for pre-teen and teenage patients through regular psychotherapy sessions and frequent communication with parents and family, teachers and medical providers.
Common Job Titles
- Child/Adolescent Therapist
- Licensed Counseling Psychologist
- Attending Psychologist – Children and Adolescents
- School Psychologist – Children and Adolescents
Developmental Child Psychology
Psychologists conduct research and study how aging affects children by observing emotional and cognitive developments.
Examples of Observed Developments
- Moral understanding
- Motor skills
- Cognitive function
- Social skills
- Identity formation
- Environmental factors
Developmental psychologists emphasize the impact of early development on later life. Research methods such as systematic observation, structured interviews and correlation exercises are often used.
Common Job Titles
- Developmental Psychologist
- Child/Adolescent Therapist
- School Psychologist
- Research Professional – Developmental Psychology
- Developmental Child Psychology Professor
- Art Therapist
Abnormal Child Psychologist
Abnormal child psychologists treat issues considered atypical by child psychology development standards, often the result of trauma, emotional or physical abuse.
Examples of Issues Treated
- Mood disorders
- Personality disorders
In severe cases, abnormal child psychologists may continue to see patients well into adulthood. Parents and family often require consultation to understand the severity of the patient’s psychological issues and behavior.
Common Job Titles
- Abnormal Psychologist - Children
- Abnormal Child Psychology Professor
- Mental/Behavioral Health Professional
Child Psychology By the Numbers
Child psychologists fall into a specialty area of clinical, counseling and school psychologists, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting demand for professionals continuing to rise. Estimates project employment will grow by 11% from 2012 to 2022, providing 16,400 new jobs during these years.
Annual Mean Wage of Child Psychologists, By State, May 2014
|State||Employment||Employment per Thousand Jobs||Location Quotient||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Source: Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, June 2015
How Do I Become a Child Psychologist?
Becoming a child psychologist requires a minimum of a master's degree, with a major in child development or clinical psychology studies. A PhD, which focuses on research, or a PsyD, which focuses on clinical practice, is necessary for psychologists looking to advance to top positions in the field. Beginning at the master's level, clinical internships and practicums are integrated into standard curriculum; post-internship experience and/or fieldwork is required to obtain state licensure and professional certification.
The following represents a series of options along your path to becoming a child psychologist. Select the status that best describes your present level of education in the field:
Declare as a psychology major.
Undergraduate psychology courses are likely to include:
- Intro to Psychology
- Behavioral Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Biological Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Statistical Methods
Consider a specialty.
- Focus your interest. Explore a niche related to child psychology.
- Seek out professors or professionals working in your specialty and talk with them. Getting a head start on your thesis topic is always recommended.
Take the GRE.
- Look up minimum admittance score requirements for your school.
- Practice taking the test multiple times.
- Consider a paid GRE prep course if your scores are low.
- Schedule your test date, leaving enough time to re-test if you need to try again for a higher score.
Get reference letters.
- Maintain a friendly relationship with your professors. Make an effort to stand out. They will remember you when it's time to start requesting references.
- If you've fallen out of touch with your instructors or academic acquaintances, don't feel intimidated about contacting them. Most likely, they will ask about your goals and interests to learn about your background and aspirations.
Choose a graduate school.
- Use our psychology database to find the best child psychology graduate programs. The school you select is directly related to your employment prospects post-graduation. Choose a school with both a recognized child psychology program and a strong alumni network.
Come up with a thesis.
- This will create the framework of your early career. Ideally, you will already have decided where your interests lie. If not, don't hesitate to select a research topic.
- Input from professors can help flesh out a full hypothesis from your initial idea.
Find an internship.
- Aim to be working while you are in school. Internships can lead directly into jobs and networking opportunities, as well as strengthen your qualifications.
Network with professors and professionals in the field.
- Networking is the most important part of the job-search process.
- Hone your interview skills with the help of your school's career services department. Professional communication and networking skills will prove advantageous throughout your entire career.
Refine your resume and keep it current.
- Maintain a professional, relevant and interesting resume.
- Ask trustworthy friends or colleagues to proofread your resume and make suggestions for improving it.
- Remember to update your resume frequently to include your most recent experience.
Start sending out job applications.
- Expect a long and laborious process from application and potential employment. Those with a systematic method will have the best chances of finding a job.
- Always customize your cover letters to each position.
- Reach out to potential employers through LinkedIn; making a personal connection can increase your chances of being invited to interview.
Prepare for interviews.
- Ask friends to help you practice interviewing.
- Research the company so that you can briefly describe its mission to your interviewer, if asked.
- Remember to dress professionally, bring your resume and act respectfully.
You're now a child psychologist.
- Congratulations! Remember, don’t stop building your career now. Pay attention to the latest developments in the industry and seek out new opportunities to advance your skills and grow your income.
To help you select a school, we have created a database of the top child psychology programs in the U.S. Simply set the customizable filters to browse the best schools that match your needs.
Meet a Doctoral Candidate in the Field of Child Psychology
Jayme Puff, M.S.
Each time a client comes in to see me, they are imparting on me their trust and willingness to become vulnerable.
To give an inside perspective of child psychology, we sat down with Jayme Puff, a doctoral candidate, to get her view on the ins-and-outs of the field.
Skip to Question
- What's your educational background/How did you get interested in child psychology?
During my time in college, I volunteered at a homeless shelter. I had the responsibility of checking in all of the people that were waiting outside the door for a meal and a bed that night. I wondered how those individuals became homeless and I was shocked to see how many families and children waited at that door each day. Only 6 families would be lucky enough to secure a room. After a few months, I came to know many of these families well. It was so fulfilling to be an active listener for these families and help them get back on their feet. If I had to trace my strong interest in psychology back to any particular experience, that would be it.
I worked my way through college by teaching at a local private preschool. I learned I loved working with young children and was curious about the potential to practice psychology with this population. During that time, I took a Childhood Psychopathology course at the University of Central Florida and was enthused about the field. I began enrolling in more psychology courses and gained a number of experiences to help me get into graduate school.
I continued on to the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Central Florida (UCF), where I am currently finishing my degree. Usually students spend 4-5 years completing university requirements (e.g., coursework, thesis and dissertation requirements, competency exams, clinical experience) and then have to complete a one-year internship in clinical psychology. The internship year is a time for students to round out their experiences and continue training in their area of interest. The Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology) is awarded after the internship year.
I chose to go the Ph.D. route because I have a deep interest in research. I enjoy the process of conducting research studies, examining relationships between variables and sharing results. The Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) training is similar to the Ph.D. training (e.g., clinical work, competency exams, coursework); however, they do not usually have a strong research component. Rather, they train their students to be prepared for clinical and other applied professional settings.
- How/why did you choose your school/program?
Choosing a child clinical psychology program is definitely a difficult process! While you are applying to a general program, you are also applying to work with a specific faculty member that will be your mentor and supervisor throughout your program. It is with this supervisor that you will do a majority of your research and learn about clinical work. In general, the faculty members you apply to work with want to know you are invested in the same line of research, have similar interests, and are a good "fit" with the current lab members and team. I had an interest in working with young children and families and my faculty advisor shared the same interest. In our conversations, it was evident we also had a good connection and similar working style. Because of these similarities, I was confident my mentor could help me gain experiences that would be a great fit for my career trajectory.
Another thing that drew me to the program was the unique competency exam method. UCF does not give traditional "exams" where you study for months and take a series of tests. Instead, UCF does "competency corners" where you have to prove your proficiency in an applied context. For example, one competency corner requires students to successfully treat a client using an empirically supported treatment, write up a case conceptualization, and present it to the clinical psychology faculty members.
- Do you recommend doing anything in undergrad/grad school to better set yourself up for success?
Once I declared my major in psychology, I met with an advisor and had an overwhelming meeting about all of the experiences that would "increase my chances of getting into graduate school." I did as many as I could with the time I had left. Actually, as I reflect back, I think these experiences prepared me most for graduate school.
First, I joined a research lab at UCF in the department of psychology that conducted research on young children and families. This is where I really fell in love with the research process and learned the basics of working in child clinical psychology. I also worked as a TA for a few semesters so I could learn about creating undergraduate courses, grading, and mentoring students. In addition, I worked for a number of volunteer agencies, working with terminally ill children, adolescent mothers’ who were parenting young children, and women in the juvenile justice system.
My first recommendation is to immerse yourself in what you feel is your area of interest. There are always people looking for volunteers in the community, and it can start by simply looking up agencies online and sending an email. I would also recommend finding an academic advisor or a professional in the field for guidance.
More generally, I would recommend studying hard for the GRE, as many universities use this as a means to "weed out" applicants. A high GPA helps too! By joining psychology clubs on campus or other organizations, you can usually get some really good information and tips on applying to graduate school ― join these as soon as you can. My final recommendation is to foster good relationships with your professors. They will be your biggest source for information and will likely write your letters of recommendation. Always be professional and courteous with their time.
- What's your area of specialty within child psychology?
I specialize in young children (e.g., birth to 6-years of age) and their families. More specifically, I am passionate about working with young children and families that have experienced various traumas (e.g., child maltreatment, domestic violence, loss of a loved one) and need assistance processing this information. I especially love working with underprivileged families, as they often do not have services readily available to them. In addition, I work with parents to assist them with parenting their infant or child and helping children learn to manage their own difficulties (e.g., anxiety, anger) by providing them with coping skills and other tools.
- Where do you currently work? How did you find that position?
Given that I am still a student, I work at a couple places part time rather than having a full time job at one location. I spend a majority of my time at UCF in our outpatient clinic. This is something all students in our program do and we see various types of clients for both assessment and therapy. My program also allows students to go out on "externship" a couple years into the program, which basically means they get to obtain experience at another agency/practice in the area. My externship placement is at Nemours Children’s Hospital in the Behavioral Health Department. I am mainly staffed on the Autism project, which aims to evaluate young children suspected of developmental delays. The clinical psychology program at UCF initiated both of these positions for me.
The great thing about child clinical psychology is that there are so many career options. For those who are interested in teaching and doing research, academia is a perfect fit. For those who enjoy clinical work, you can always go into private practice or work for a hospital (if they have a behavioral health department). There are also a lot of jobs that fall in between, such as medical school settings or working at the policy level to improve children’s mental health. Most students gain exposure to some of these job options in graduate school and can start fostering relationships with professionals. These relationships can definitely come in handy when it comes time for applying to jobs.
- Were there any unexpected hurdles in getting where you are today?
Absolutely. I would say that it was a personal hurdle for me to be away from my family and close friends for many years; balancing that was difficult at times. In addition, I would add that trying to keep up with the changes in the field is an ongoing hurdle. For example, when I entered into graduate school, the field was using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition – Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) as a tool to diagnose psychological disorders. Halfway through my training, a new version of the manual came out (the DSM-5) and we were all required to learn the modifications and new diagnoses. The same goes for psychological assessment tools, such as IQ and achievement tests. Those are updated every few years and it is our responsibility to keep up with those changes. But I would say the hardest hurdle is that there is often delayed gratification. Sometimes I feel like I'm not making progress or moving forward because there isn't always an immediate reinforcement. In my opinion, however, when the delayed gratification does come, it’s even sweeter!
- What does your typical day involve?
Because I am a student, every day looks a little different. Most days, I am working in the outpatient clinic at UCF seeing a few daily clients. Usually I spend some time prepping for each session (e.g., reading through manuals, prepping worksheets) and each session lasts for approximately one hour. Following each session I write a progress note, which delineates exactly what took place during the appointment. I also spend a good amount of time receiving supervision from my major professor so that we can talk about cases and future treatment plans.
A lot of psychologists spend time consulting with colleagues on cases because many are not black and white, and there are many ethical and legal standards to consider. In between sessions, I am usually working on my research. We have a number of ongoing projects in our lab, so sometimes I am running research protocols with participants and sometimes I am analyzing statistical data and writing up manuscripts for publication. My particular lab also volunteers a lot of time in the community at various organizations, such as a residential facility for substance-abusing women and their children and a school for low-income children. We typically spend 1 to 3 hours per week at these agencies providing direct services to children and families.
- What's your favorite part of the job?
First off, my day is never predictable which I love! Kids definitely keep me on my toes and I enjoy my time with each of them, even when they are being difficult. I laugh often with the adorable comments made in session and I am reminded every day of how smart kids can be. I also love when a client or family has a successful outcome and makes improvements towards better functioning. I think it goes without saying that most psychologists love this part of their work! It’s not always easy, though, and that is very important to note.
One thing I really love is that it allows me to grow as a person every day. It is a constant reminder of what really matters in life. Each time a client comes in to see me, they are imparting on me their trust and willingness to become vulnerable. Perhaps the most beautiful part of my job is what an honor it is to serve these families. Whether they are ready for change or just processing the possibility of change, they chose me to be with them every step of the way. That is never to be taken for granted and I am so thankful for each and every person I have had the opportunity to work with.
- What do you think makes a great child psychologist?
To be a good child psychologist, you not only have to be patient with the people you work with but with the process itself. It is also important to be very conscientious, non-judgmental, and curious. You never know what kinds of difficulties a person will present, so it's incredibly important to keep an open mind and stay empathetic. I would also say it helps to be a resilient person. This trait is not only critical to get through graduate school, but also to be able to handle the stressors of the job.
- Is there anything you don't like about your work?
Not really, but there are definitely difficult days. For example, not every client walks through the door ready and able to make the necessary changes for themselves and their children. It’s hard to not let these cases interfere with your work and sometimes your personal life. Every once in a while you also have to do something you know your clients will be upset by. For instance, having to report child abuse or neglect or admitting a suicidal patient to a hospital. Nonetheless, knowing I made the right choice for their safety and consulting with my colleagues can help me to cope with these moments. Everyone has to find their own way to deal with these aspects of the job.
I sometimes wish I could keep in touch with my clients. I devote so much time and energy to working with them and it’s sometimes hard to say goodbye. Ethically, a therapist is not allowed to contact clients just to check in once they have completed treatment. You need to give the client room to grow on their own and you can disturb that by reaching out. It is the client’s responsibility to contact the therapist should he/she need assistance again or want to give an update. Every once in a while, I reflect on past clients and wonder how they are doing or what the child has grown to be like. I just have to remind myself that if they are not in my office, then they are likely doing okay.
- What's the most interesting or challenging case/experience you've come across?
Because of confidentiality, I am not able to give the specifics about any one particular case without consent. I am able to speak, however, to the kinds of cases you might come across in the field. For me, I work with many individuals who have experienced things like childhood maltreatment (e.g., physical, emotional, and sexual abuse) and domestic violence. Usually this kind of work involves working with families to break the intergenerational cycle of these types of traumas by talking about all of the details and brainstorming plans for safety.
Because these families have experienced so many difficult situations and may not trust the process, it can be difficult to build rapport and get them on board with the treatment goals. Nonetheless, there are so many different disorders and despite having a specialty, you will likely see a variety of disorders and clinical presentations. For example, a child may have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and have a very specific hand washing ritual (compulsion) to assist them with their fear of germs and getting sick (obsession).
One experience that stands out to me actually was not a client but someone I met in the community. This mother exhibited Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, which basically means she exaggerated or fabricated medical symptoms in her young child, despite the child being relatively healthy. Although this is not a clear-cut "childhood disorder" it is a good example of why we often need to work with parents in treatment. Despite the disorder or client presenting, I think each case is unique and challenging in its own way, which is why it is so important to keep up with the research. In doing this, psychologists can provide the best care possible.
- Are you involved with any professional organizations? If so, why?
Yes. I am part of the American Psychological Association (APA) for a number of reasons. I first joined in undergrad mainly because I was told to. I soon learned that a membership to APA allows you to stay up on all the new and exciting research happening in the field. APA sends a magazine monthly that highlights research. APA also holds a convention each year where universities can go and present all the awesome work they are doing. A lot of these organizations also post job announcements on their websites, email listservs, and magazines.
I also have memberships to various other organizations (e.g., Florida Association of Infant Mental Health, Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies) for the same reasons. Once you find your area of interest, there are tons of organizations you can get involved with!
- What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in this field right now? Who is doing the most interesting research?
This is a really difficult question to answer because there are so many amazing researchers out there doing really great work. In my opinion, I like that the field is moving towards trauma-informed care, which focuses on delivering services to people who have experienced violence or trauma and are looking for support in their recovery. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, 85-95% of women in the public mental health system reported a history of some type of trauma (e.g., childhood maltreatment, loss of a loved one). That said, many people present for services because of underlying symptoms of trauma so it is very important for providers to be knowledgeable about how to treat it.
Specifically, there is a lot of interesting research on Child-Parent Psychotherapy, which is an intervention for children birth to 5-years of age and their caregivers who have experienced a traumatic event and are struggling with subsequent symptoms. You can refer to the work of Dr. Alicia Lieberman and Dr. Patricia Van Horn for more information. Furthermore, the Infant Team at Tulane University is doing a lot of interesting research about infant-parent relationships and understanding attachment disorders. The director of this team is Dr. Charles Zeanah and they have some really cool studies looking at infant development. The Yale Child Study Center is also doing some really interesting work looking at mothers in substance-use treatment facilities and their infants. In one study, Suchman and colleagues (2011) found that following an attachment-based intervention, mothers were better able to acknowledge personal emotions as well as the emotions and behaviors of their children.
Of course, I also think the work my research lab is conducting is interesting! We mainly focus on understanding the relationships between mothers’ history of trauma, their characteristics, and their young children’s characteristics and how those work together to predict the mother-young child relationship and the potential for future maltreatment. We hope the information we obtain from these studies will be helpful for identifying at-risk families and intervening early to prevent further problems.
- What's the best "must-read/watch" book, video, or publication for your field?
In my opinion, "Heeling Neen," was an incredible documentary and really influenced how I approach working with clients who have experienced multiple traumas. It covers the emergence of a woman from drug addiction, multiple incarcerations, and two decades of homelessness and how she worked to become an advocate and educator on the devastating impact of childhood abuse. She also has a book called, "Healing Neen" if you would prefer to read the story.
Another really great documentary is, "The Dark Matter of Love," which covers a few children who grew up in Russian orphanages and were adopted into an American family. With regards to books, "Empty Cradle Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of your Baby" was a great read for some clients who experienced miscarriages and/or lost a child. If you’re looking for a self-help book, "Get out of your mind and into your life," is an awesome book about living in the moment rather than focusing on the past or future. Also, in the field of infant mental health, Psychotherapy with Infants and Young Children: Repairing the Effects of Stress and Trauma on Early Attachment by Alicia F. Lieberman and the Handbook of Infant Mental Health, Third Edition by Charles H. Zeanah Jr., M.D. are really great reads on working with infants and parents.
- Any other advice for those looking to go into the field?
Start now! Find a professor at a university or someone in the community that does what you want to and reach out to them for guidance. Get as many experiences as you can so that you can find your niche and become an expert in it. That said, don't get wedded to the first experience that you like. I have met many people who changed their area of study halfway through their graduate training and couldn't be happier. Sometimes you may think that certain disorder or specific type of client is not for you until you get experience with it. In general, keep an open mind.
- What are the biggest considerations someone should think about before pursuing child psychology?
You should definitely ask yourself why you are interested in the field. If your answer is just to get a doctoral degree, then you might want to rethink your decision. This career is extremely rewarding but also has its tough times. Be sure you are ready to dedicate about 10 years (total with undergraduate and graduate) of 50+ hours of work per week. Also be sure you are someone who can handle working with people on some really difficult situations. Work/life balance is extremely important in this career so make sure you master that first!
Another consideration is that it is really tough to get into a doctorate program. You may have to move across the country to pursue the degree and then move again to complete your internship. It’s not impossible to stay local, but depending on many factors, it could be difficult. My final note is to think about your life trajectory (e.g., having a family). Graduate school is really time consuming and can be stressful at times, so it can sometimes get in the way with other life plans. Just make sure you are being true to yourself and what you want to get out of life.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
This is a really exciting time to be in the field of child clinical psychology. There are many changes happening and there is so much room for growth. Although it is a long process and I had to make many sacrifices, it was worth every minute! If you think you might be interested in the field, start now.
Child Psychology Resources
These resources, personally selected by our editorial staff, capture the organizations, journals and conferences at the forefront of child psychology. If you feel a crucial resource is absent from our collection, please don't hesitate to let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology
- American Board of Assessment Psychology
- American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
- American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
- American Counseling Association
- American Educational Research Association
- American Psychoanalytic Association
- American Psychological Association
- Association for Psychological Science
- Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
- Alaska Psychological Association
- Psychologists of Northwest Arkansas
- Arizona Psychological Association
- California Psychological Association
- Children's Home Society
- Connecticut Psychological Association
- Colorado Psychological Association
- Delaware Psychological Association
- Idaho Society of Individual Psychology
- Illinois Association for Infant Mental Health
- Kansas Association for Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health
- Kentucky Psychological Association
- Louisiana Psychological Association
- Louisiana Group Psychotherapy Society
- Maine Psychological Association
- Maryland Psychological Association
- Massachusetts Psychological Association
- Mental Health Association of Montana
- Mental Health Association in Michigan
- Mental Health Association in Hawaii
- Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania
- Metropolitan New York Association for Applied Psychology
- Mid-Atlantic Group Psychotherapy Society
- Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health
- Mississippi Psychological Association
- Montana Psychological Association
- New York State Psychological Association
- New York State Association for Behavior Analysis
- New Jersey Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists
- Nebraska Psychological Association
- Ohio Psychological Association
- Oregon Psychological Association
- Rhode Island Psychological Association
- Tennessee Psychological Association
- Texas Psychological Association
- Utah Psychological Association
- Vermont Psychological Association
- Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists
- Washington State Psychological Association
- Wisconsin Psychological Association
- Wyoming Psychological Association
- Child Abuse: Abstracts of the Psychological and Behavioral Literature
- Child Sexual Abuse to Adult Sexual Risk: Trauma, Revictimization, and Intervention
- Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry
- Developmental Psychology
- Helping Others Help Children: Clinical Supervision of Child Psychotherapy
- Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
- Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
- Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
- Lessons from Research and Intervention
- Strengthening Couple Relationships for Optimal Child Development
- American Board of Professional Psychology Annual Conference and Workshops
- 9th Annual International Conference on Psychology
- 17th European Conference of Developmental Psychology
- 1st International Congress of Clinical and Health Psychology with Children and Adolescents
- 5th WAIMH Conference (World Association for Infant Mental Health)