According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 children experience or have experienced a debilitating mental disorder or illness. These include ADHD, mood disorders (such as depression), anxiety and conduct disorder.
“Mental health — an essential part of children’s overall health — has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society,” states the American Psychological Association (in its article ‘Children’s Mental Health’). “…All children and youth have the right to happy and healthy lives and deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any mental health problems that they may develop.”
Child counselors may work with a wide range of ages that fall under the pediatric span, i.e. from infancy through to the teenage years.
According to the American Psychological Association (1999): “Pediatric psychology is a child psychology subspecialty defined as ‘an interdisciplinary field addressing physical, cognitive, social, and emotional functioning and development as related to health and illness issues in children, adolescents, and families.’”
Child/pediatric counselors play an important role in providing this effective level of care. They not only help children and youth suffering from mental illness; they may address a range of concerns, including educational, cognitive, social, emotional, developmental and behavioral challenges, as well as helping children who have experienced or witnessed trauma.
Child/Pediatric Counselors At a Glance
- Degree Level Requirements: Master’s Degree
- Licensure Requirements: To practice as a professional child counselor you must be licensed; licensure requirements vary by state.
- Specializations: Trauma; a Particular Age Group; a Particular Disorder/Behavior, Mental Illness; Blended Families and Divorce; Special Need Populations…
- Median Annual Salaries: $40,080*
- Job Outlook: 37% growth from 2010 to 2020**
Career & Job Description
Child/pediatric counselors may work in private practice, at hospitals and clinics, for community and non-profit organizations, government and military agencies and other healthcare /outreach facilities. Depending on their position, a child counselor may work with patients as young as infants up to individuals well into their teens, addressing a variety of mental health, developmental, behavioral and emotional concerns.
Some typical roles of a child or pediatric counselor might include:
• Provide individual, group and/or family counseling.
• Perform initial screenings and assessments, as well as crisis intervention when necessary.
• Work with children (and with parents/caregivers) to develop treatment plans.
• Depending on training and cases, provide counseling and treatment techniques such as play therapy, child-centered therapy, cognitive/behavioral therapy, structured learning programs, trauma therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and other appropriate modalities.
• Refer patients and their family to other necessary resources in the community.
• Work and communicate with teachers, social workers, family doctors and other professionals involved in the child’s life.
• Work with parents/caregivers through offering family counseling, teaching them techniques they can practice at home (such as play therapy) and even offering a support group to parents/family members.
Kira Hartgrove (M.A., LPC, RPT) a child counselor and author of The Counselor Mom blog, strongly recommends those interested in a career in child counseling be trained in play therapy. In her blog, Hartgrove explains that children (particularly those 9 years and younger) typically won’t just sit down and chat with a counselor like an older individual would. She writes:
“Adults communicate their day to day problems with words, whereas a child communicates through play. Their language is play and they use toys as their ‘words’ to express themselves…We don’t analyze every thing they play with, it’s more that we make comments that will foster self esteem, encourage and increase expression of feelings and basically to let the kids know we are there and they can be themselves safely, without any judgement!”
Specializations / Concentrations
Throughout one’s career, a child/pediatric counselor may develop several specialties through training (i.e. continued education and certification) and experience. Some examples of specializations include:
- Infant mental health
- Preschool Assessment
- Attachment concerns for parents or children
- Sensory-motor therapy
- Students with special needs
- Blended families, divorce and separation
- Autism and Asperger’s
- Learning disorders
- Domestic violence or family conflict
- Fears and Phobias
- Trauma or PTSD
- Social skills and interpersonal relationships
- Separation anxiety
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Selective mutism
- Self-esteem concerns
Explore Your Career Path
The Educational Journey
According to child counselor Kira Hartgrove (M.A., LPC, RPT), to become a child/pediatric counselor, you must complete a “masters in professional counseling or marriage and family tract.” She also says a program that includes training in play therapy “is a must!”
If you prefer to take a break from school after completing your undergraduate degree, there are a number of relevant positions you may pursue, with the appropriate Bachelor’s degree, to gain valuable experience.
- Bachelor’s Degree: Relevant Bachelor’s degrees include Psychology, Social Work, Elementary Education, Special Education or Social Work. (Note: if you already have completed your Bachelor’s degree in another area, this does not disqualify you from pursuing a career in child counseling. Depending on the Master’s program, you may just need to take some pre-requisite courses first).
- Relevant Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree: Child life specialist, crisis center worker, psychiatric technician, youth probation officer, family or youth shelter case manager, early childhood behavioral specialist, teacher assistant, family services worker, teacher (if you have a Bachelor of Education), etc.
- Master’s Degree: Relevant graduate degrees when pursuing a career as a child counselor include a Master’s in Counseling Psychology; a Master’s of Education in Counseling; a Master’s in Clinical Psychology; a Master’s in Counseling with a specialization in Marriage, Family & Child Therapy; a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy; etc.
Generally speaking, to practice as a child counselor you must be licensed. Licensure requirements vary by state. (You can find a list of state counseling boards by visiting the National Board for Certified Counselors’ directory: www.nbcc.org/directory). Relevant licenses/certifications include LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) or LPCC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor). Note that some social workers also act as child counselors. (Social workers have their own licensure, such as LSW or LCSW).
As you specialize and build up your skills and training as a child counselor, it is also beneficial to gain certifications. Relevant examples include RPT (Registered Play Therapist) or CTS (Certified Trauma Specialist).
Children may benefit from meeting with a child counselor if they exhibit signs like:
- Developmental delays (such as speech or toileting)
- Problems with learning or paying attention
- Behavioral concerns (such as extreme anger or aggressiveness, sudden bedwetting…)
- Sudden change in school performance
- Social isolation or withdrawing from relationships
- Episodes of extreme sadness
- Being bullied or a bully
- No longer interested in activities that they previously enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Mood Swings
- Complaining of physical symptoms (even when nothing is detected by physical exam)
- Signs of substance abuse
- Trouble transitioning after a move or parents have separated/divorced
- Has experienced/witnessed a traumatic event or abuse
- Reference & Data Information Provided by the Following:
- * May 2012 (for Mental Health Counselors, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- ** May 2010 (for Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- † Salary data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211014.htm
- ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/mental-health-counselors-and-marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
- Other Sources/References
- Kira Hartgrove, M.A., LPC, RPT, Author of “The Counselor Mom” blog; http://www.linkedin.com/pub/kira-hartgrove/3/a1b/624 ; http://www.thecounselormom.com/