Finding a child psychologist or child therapist can be a minefield for parents. What is the difference?
How do you know what type of child psychologist or child therapist to look for?
How do you know where to look?
I’m a child psychologist and I’m going to help you with these questions. I run a large multi-disciplinary children’s clinic called Everlief Child Psychology in the UK.
The information in this article is based on UK children’s mental health therapists.
However, much of the information I provide about child psychologists and child therapists will be relevant to parents in other parts of the world too.
This article is about therapy for well-being and mental health. It does not cover speech and language therapy, occupational therapy or physiotherapy.
A child psychologist is a specialist in the mental and emotional wellbeing of children. They are trained to understand the complex processes of a child’s mind. There are several different types of child psychologist including a clinical psychologist and an educational psychologist.
A child psychologist’s role includes diagnosing, assessing, and providing interventions for various emotional and behavioural issues.
For instance, a parent might seek support if their child is struggling with school anxiety, exhibiting signs of ADHD, or facing challenges in social interactions.
Child Psychologist Assessments
The child psychologist will seek to understand what is contributing to the problem through a variety of methods including observation, talking to the child and those who know them, questionnaires and testing.
Child Psychologist Formulations
Once the child psychologist has gathered their background information they will develop a “formulation”.
A psychological formulation is a structured approach to understanding a child’s psychological difficulties. It draws upon psychological theories to make sense of the child’s experiences, behaviours, and emotions.
A child psychologist’s formulation provides a framework for understanding the root causes of a child’s challenges . In essence, it’s a collaborative story that offers insight into the “why” behind a person’s struggles.
Child Psychologist Treatment Plans
Following the formulation stage the child psychologist will develop a treatment plan. This is done collaboratively with your child and often involves parents as well.
The treatment plan may involve, for example, therapeutic sessions with the child psychologist, direct parenting guidance, and liaison with the child’s school to help reduce stressors in the school environment.
What is a Child Therapist?
A child therapist is someone who seeks to make a positive difference to a child’s life through regular one-to-one or group therapy. Child therapists are trained in one or more forms of therapeutic models, such as person-centred counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or psychodynamic psychotherapy.
Therapy can take many forms. Talking therapy can be completely unstructured (e.g. some forms of child counseling) or very structured (e.g. cognitive behavior therapy).
“Creative therapies” such as play therapy may not involve talking at all, depending on the individual therapist’s approach.
Child therapy can be individual, focused solely on the child, or it could be family therapy seeking to understand and adapt family systems.
Most therapy is face-to-face but increasingly since the pandemic, child therapists may incorporate other methods such as video calls, phone calls, WhatsApp and text messages.
This big change in approach is a fantastic development for some teens who would struggle to access to more formal face-to-face type of therapy.
What is the Role of a Child Therapist?
Child therapists need to do 3 things:
- Assess your child’s needs.
- Plan an intervention to meet these needs.
- Deliver that intervention effectively – for example, 8 sessions of talking therapy aimed at reducing your child’s anxiety.
Child Psychologist vs Child Therapist: What’s the Difference?
Most child psychologists are also child therapists. But most child therapists are not also child psychologists. “Child therapist” is a much broader term involving many different types of therapy.
Child therapists may not have a background in psychology or a graduate degree. For example, they may not have an undergraduate degree in psychology followed by a doctorate degree, as child psychologists do.
Clinical child psychologists are therapists, but they can do additional work such as psychometric tests and assessments. Child psychologists have training in child development and brain science as well as therapy.
Educational child psychologists are slightly different. Like clinical psychologists, they have a long and in-depth training, but this training is based in education rather than health settings. They focus a lot on assessments, but may also be trained to offer therapy.
An educational child psychologist’s job is to uncover why a child isn’t thriving or progressing at school, and to make recommendations or interventions to positively change this.
Does My Child Need a Therapist or Child Psychologist?
To determine whether a child psychologist or child therapist is best for your child, consider the following:
1. Specific Concerns: If there are concerns about developmental milestones, learning difficulties, or potential diagnoses like ADHD or autism, a child psychologist might be more appropriate due to their expertise in assessment and diagnosis.
2. Nature of Support Needed: If the primary need is therapeutic support for life events like grief, bullying or difficult events in the family, a child therapist may be best placed to support your child.
3. Recommendations: Sometimes, schools, pediatricians, or other professionals might recommend a specific type of professional based on their observations.
4. Duration and Intensity: If the concerns are long-standing and affect multiple areas of your child’s life, a psychologist might offer a more comprehensive approach. For short-term or specific issues, a therapist might be suitable.
Does My Child Need Therapy?
Therapy isn’t always the answer for your child. Here are some questions to consider:
- Is your child’s poor well-being/mental health having a day to day impact on their lives?
- Has your child’s poor well-being affected their self-confidence or self-worth?
- Is your child’s poor well-being/mental health having an impact on the rest of the family?
- Is your child asking for help?
If the answer to one or more of the above questions is yes, then you may benefit from exploring child therapists in your area or online. You will also find my free class called How to get Help For Your Child really helpful.
But what type of child therapist is right for your child?
What Kind of Child Therapist Should I Look For?
There are so many different types of children’s therapists, and each has a slightly different type and level of training and different way of working.
It’s also a good idea to think about your child’s personality, needs, and level of development.
Finding a Child Therapist: Your Child’s Personality
Is your child expressive?
Do they enjoy talking to others?
Will they be able to talk to an adult confidently?
Would they prefer to express themselves through play, art or music?
Therapy is not right for everyone. Some children are not well suited to therapy at certain stages in their development. It will be much more effective to get some support as parents or to focus on changing the child’s environment to help them thrive.
For example, of your child is anxious about school, therapy is not necessarily the best action to take, or at least not at first. It’s far more important to get to to the bottom of what is causing the anxiety and work with school staff to make changes. If your child gets overwhelmed by the noise and demands of the classroom, what can be done to ease that pressure?
In a case like this, a child psychologist is the best course of action, because they can work with the whole “system” around the child including you as parents.
Matching a Child Therapist With Your Child’s Needs
For children with diagnosed “mental health disorders” such as anorexia nervosa or OCD, a more structured approach from a highly qualified therapist such as a clinical psychologist is required.
In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides very specific guidelines for the therapies that should be offered for certain conditions and you can do a search on their site.
For example, for anorexia nervosa in young people they state:
“Consider anorexia-nervosa-focused family therapy for children and young people (FT‑AN), delivered as single-family therapy or a combination of single- and multi-family therapy. Give children and young people the option to have some single-family sessions:
Separately from their family members or carers and together with their family members or carers.
FT‑AN for children and young people with anorexia nervosa should:
- Typically consist of 18 to 20 sessions over 1 year.
- Review the needs of the person 4 weeks after treatment begins and then every 3 months, to establish how regular sessions should be and how long treatment should last;
- Emphasise the role of the family in helping the person to recover;
- Not blame the person or their family members or carers;
- Include psychoeducation about nutrition and the effects of malnutrition.”
If your child’s needs are milder or less specific, they may benefit from a less structured form of therapy such as counselling.
Counselling can be particularly helpful if a child needs support to process traumatic events such as divorce or bereavement. Counselling is far less structured than a child psychologist’s approach. This may suit your child, depending on their personality and specific needs.
What Level of Structure Would Suit Your Child?
If your child has a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression they will benefit from a fairly structured approach.
Clinical child psychologists can provide CBT in a flexible and responsive way. For example, they may incorporate aspects of other therapies such as compassion-focused therapy, to suit the individual needs of the child.
Choosing a Child Therapist: Your Child’s Level of Development
Does your child have insight into their difficulties? Or, for instance, do they blame others? For example, if they are having friendship difficulties do they believe it’s always the other person’s fault, or do they say that there are two sides to the story?
If your child has limited insight into their own feelings, thoughts, and the impact of their behaviour on others, they may not be ready for the more “cognitive” types of therapy.
Young children (around 8 years old or younger) will not generally benefit from talking therapies such as CBT which require a high level of cognitive insight. However, with heavy involvement from the parent(s) or family members, the behavioural aspects of CBT can be highly successful for young children.
For example, if a 6 year-old has a severe phobia the therapist would focus only on changing the child’s behaviour – helping them approach the feared object or scenario (taking baby steps and with parent support). They would not attempt the cognitive aspect – understanding and challenging fearful thoughts.
Child Therapy: Always The Right Solution?
A word of caution. Therapy is not like medical treatment. Your child has to “buy into it” for it to be successful. You can’t force a child to feel better through therapy.
If your child doesn’t want therapy, then it may not be right for them at the moment. Focus on what supports can be put in place in their environment, and getting advice for yourself as a parent. A child psychologist may be able to provide this help.
Having said this, a child doesn’t need to fully buy into therapy at the beginning. It’s natural for them to feel cautious and nervous. They just need to be willing to meet the therapist for a first session, and show some curiosity about what’s involved.
A skilled therapist will work hard to develop rapport with your child and engage them on the child’s terms.
How Can I Check the Child Therapist I Choose is Fully Qualified?
Your child needs a thorough assessment to determine the best course of action. Therefore it’s important to make sure the professional is appropriately qualified, experienced and insured.
Sometimes people without adequate qualifications set themselves up as child therapists. The various professions are not well regulated. It is essential you know what to look for.
For example, clinical psychologists in the UK (like me) train to doctorate level. They must be registered with the Health Care Professionals Council. However, anyone with a psychology first degree (BA or BSc) can technically call themselves a psychologist. These “psychologists” can offer therapy services to the public, even though they may not be registered, properly trained, or have adequate insurance.
Therefore, if you are seeing a child psychologist in the UK, always check their HCPC number. Usually this number will be clearly displayed on their website or email signature, or at the bottom of their letters.
Below I have detailed how to check the credentials of other child therapists in the UK.
In other countries, the process for checking your psychologist or therapist’s credentials can vary. In the USA it varies state by state. Here is a state-by-state guide to checking a therapist’s licence.
Child Therapy: Do Parents Have to Pay?
In the UK, your child’s GP or their school can make a referral to child mental health specialists. This includes CAMHS (child & adolescent mental health services). It’s unlikely that you will be able to choose which type of professional your child will be allocated to.
Unfortunately the waiting time can be lengthy, depending on the severity of your child’s needs.
If your child is in urgent need of support, CAMHS teams have crisis services who offer urgent care.
Owing to the pressures on the NHS, many parents now access child psychologists or therapists through their private health insurance, or self-fund this treatment.
Sometimes, free or low cost child therapy can be provided by charitable organisations. This varies by local area and your child’s school or your doctor will know of any local organisations that can help.
In the USA, speak with your healthcare provider about how to access child therapist support.
Child Therapy Professionals: A Breakdown
Let’s now take a look at each type of child therapist, to help you get clearer on which one is best suited to your child.
Clinical Child Psychologists
What is a Clinical Child Psychologist?
Clinical psychologists are trained to doctoral level. They are Doctors of Clinical Psychology. (Please note that in the past the training involved a Master’s degree rather than a doctorate, so some older clinical psychologists are not doctors.)
There is no difference between a clinical psychologist and a clinical child psychologist. All clinical psychologists do a 3 year in-depth doctoral training, and some go on to specialise in child psychology.
Clinical psychologists are experts in mental health conditions, child development, brain science, and a range of evidence-based therapies. Clinical child psychologists may support the whole family, the child alone, or both. This depends on your circumstances.
As child psychologists are trained in developmental psychology, they can identify whether your child’s development is in line with that of their peers.
A child clinical psychologist deals with the assessment and therapy of children’s fears, children’s self-esteem, children’s learning difficulties as well as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. They generally use a structured approach to child psychology. Therapy consists of three stages:
- Assessment (developing a full understanding of the problem by listening to your story).
- Formulation (bringing together all areas that may be contributing to the problem, like a detective).
- Action plan (making recommendations and/or providing therapy).
Pros of Clinical Child Psychologists
Very high level of training. Clinical child psychologists are flexible and adaptable. They adjust the approach to your child’s/family’s needs. They can support children who have more severe mental illness or psychological disorders.
Structured and guided support, yet clinical psychologists are also trained to be good listeners, empathetic and non-judgmental.
Cons of Clinical Child Psychologists
Expensive compared with other types of child therapist.
How to Find a Clinical Child Psychologist in the UK
Clinical psychologists must register with the HCPC (Health Care Professions Council) and the best way to find a qualified psychologist is to check their name on the register.
To find a clinical psychologist you can go to the ACHiPPP (Association of Child Psychologists in Private Practice) register or the BPS (British Psychological Society) Directory of Chartered Psychologists.
What is a Counselling Psychologist?
Counselling psychologists are similar to clinical psychologists. They have a high level of training – to doctorate level. They work collaboratively with families to understand what has caused a problem, and find a helpful path forwards.
Counselling psychologists assess and a range of difficulties including bereavement, relationships and mental health conditions.
Pros and Cons of Counselling Psychologists
The same as for clinical psychologists.
How to Find a Counselling Psychologist in the UK
BPS Directory or ACHiPPP directory (as with clinical psychologists). Again, counselling psychologists must register with the HCPC.
What is a CBT Therapist?
It takes approximately one year to complete the training to become a CBT therapist.
CBT therapists focus on providing one form of therapy: cognitive behavioural therapy.
CBT has an excellent evidence base for many mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. CBT therapists usually offer one-to-one therapy rather than group or family work.
Pros of CBT Therapists For Children
Cons of CBT Therapists For Children
CBT is very structured. This doesn’t suit everyone.
CBT therapists won’t be able to pivot the treatment to another form of therapy if CBT is not a good match for your child.
How to Find a CBT Therapist in the UK
All UK CBT therapists should be registered with the BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy). You can search for therapists here. Click on the therapists’ individual profiles to check whether they work with children.
What is a Child Psychotherapist?
Child psychotherapists have several years of advanced training. They help people make sense of their difficult thoughts and feelings.
Often child psychotherapists work with children with complex difficulties such as trauma or abuse. Child psychotherapists aim for lasting change at a deep level.
Child psychotherapists tend to offer longer-term therapy than psychologists or CBT therapists.
For example, they may work with a child for twelve months or more on a weekly basis.
Pros of Child Psychotherapists
Child psychotherapists have a very high level of training. They often use play or drawing as well as talking.
Cons of Child Psychotherapists
As the therapy is longer term it can be expensive.
Child psychotherapy tends to be explorative rather than directive or structured, so may not suit all families.
How to Find a Child Psychotherapist in the UK
You can find a child psychotherapist through the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP) Directory.
What is a Child Counsellor?
Counsellors offer a space for people to share their feelings openly. They ask questions and offer reflections.
Counsellors do not give advice; counselling is “non-directive”.
Counselling can be helpful to explore difficult life events such as bereavements or relationship problems.
Pros of Child Counselling
Counselling is an open space where children can bring anything they want. Many children enjoy the freedom of this non-directive approach.
Cons of Child Counselling
Counsellors may not have mental health training (some do). They may not be the most appropriate professional if your child has specific mental health issues.
Counsellors do not usually work with the whole family, so parents may find counselling less collaborative than they are looking for.
How to Find a Child Counsellor in the UK
You can find an accredited counsellor through the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy).
What is a Family Therapist?
Family therapists aim to help families resolve conflicts and improve communication. They try to help families function in a healthier way. Therapy may include the whole family, or just those who want to take part. It takes several years to train as a family therapist.
Sometimes family therapy happens alongside individual therapy, particularly for complex mental health conditions such as eating disorders.
Pros of Family Therapy
It can be incredibly powerful to work on issues as a family.
Family therapy takes “the problem” away from the individual, which can reduce feelings of shame and guilt.
Cons of Family Therapy
Family therapy is often expensive compared with certain other types of therapy.
It is harder to work on difficulties if not all members of the family engage in the process.
How to Find a Family Therapist in the UK
What is a Child Psychiatrist?
Child psychiatrists (often referred to as child and adolescent psychiatrists) are medical doctors who go on to specialise in the mind and mental illness.
Child psychiatrists use a “medical model”. In general psychiatrists focus on diagnosing and treating using medicines. However, some psychiatrists also train as child therapists.
Many child psychiatrists train in psychotherapy in addition to their medical training.
Pros of Child psychiatrists
Psychiatrists are highly qualified medical professionals.
Psychiatrists can prescribe medicine.
Cons of Child Psychiatrists
Most psychiatrists focus on the medical model and are not therapists. Therefore, it can be hard to find a psychiatrist who is also a therapist.
The cost will be higher than other therapists owing to psychiatrists’ high level of training.
How to Find a Child Psychiatrist in the UK
Psychiatrists are registered with the General Medical Council and you can check their registration on their website.
Art Therapists, Drama Therapists, Music Therapists, Play Therapists (Creative Therapists)
What Are Creative Therapists?
Art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy and play therapy are types of creative psychotherapy that use art, drama, music and play as the main modes of expression and communication.
These forms of therapy are perfect for children with emotional issues who struggle to express themselves through words.
UK art therapists, drama therapists and music therapists are regulated by the HCPC (Health Care Professions Council) and you can check their name against the register.
You can find an art therapist through the BAAT (British Association of Art Therapists).
Other Types of Child Therapists
There are certain other types of child therapist such as nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners have a background in nursing but have trained is specific forms of therapy in addition.
Social workers may also have achieved further training in specific therapeutic methods.
As a parent, just be sure to check that the therapist is registered with their appropriate regulatory body and is fully insured.
Child Psychologist & Child Therapist: Summary
This guide has been a brief overview of the professions which would count as child therapists, and how to find reputable professional help.
Each type of professional does a great deal more than I describe above. There is often considerable overlap between professionals.
If your child is experiencing tough times and you think therapy will help, take time to consider what type of child therapist your child need. Next, the two crucial things you need to do are:
a) check the child therapist’s qualifications and professional registration, and;
b) speak to the therapist about their approach. Is this a good fit for your child?
Sometimes it takes a couple of meetings to establish whether it’s a good match, but you should find out as much as you can in advance.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.