Your child may be presenting with difficulties in school or at home making you concerned about their need for mental health professional help. Choosing the best fit for your child’s needs is a challenge; knowing the differences between types of mental health professionals is imperative when making the decision.
Mental Health Professionals for Children
The specific need for a mental health professional for children may vary. Understanding the difference between a child psychologist and psychiatrist can make all the difference in the type of care your child receives.
What is a child psychologist?
A child psychologist is a person who has studied the inner workings of brains including the cognitive functioning and processing of emotions specific to children. Clinical psychologists are generally trained to use psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” in order to interview and diagnose patients (AACAP, 2022).
Child psychologists specialize in working with children, applying similar concepts used with adults to the appropriate level of a child they may work with. Child psychologists focus on developmental areas as well as a social and emotional adjustment when working with children (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). They also help with assessing for cognitive and developmental delays by administering tests.
What is a child psychiatrist?
A child psychiatrist is a mental health professional that has obtained a medical degree specific to dealing with child mental health and development. A child psychiatrist works with children by combining therapeutic techniques and medication management.
They are better able to target treatment with the combination of therapy and medication leaning toward more comprehensive care (AACAP, 2022). Similarly to a psychologist, they are able to administer and assess tests related to diagnosis
When do you need to choose between these two medical professionals?
Choosing between medical professionals can be difficult especially when your children are the patients. The difference between child psychiatrists and psychologists is in one main way, medication prescription can be the real deciding factor in finding your child the right type of care.
If medication is necessary, a primary care physician may recommend using a psychiatrist that uses medication in conjunction with therapy. This is so that a child may be able to apply coping strategies and healthy behaviors and cognitions without the need for long-term use of medications.
Similarities, Differences, and When to See a Child Psychiatrist vs Child Psychologist
With the information at hand, applying it to your child and finding out the best fit for their needs can be confusing. Here is some more information to help you decide what is right for you and your child.
The Similarities Between Child Psychologists and psychiatrists:
- Diagnosis of mental health disorders: both psychiatrists and psychologists use years of experience, training, and administration of tests to help diagnose various mental health disorders.
- One-on-one treatment: psychiatrists and psychologists focus on treatment surrounding a particular individual’s needs.
- Medication Management: though psychologists do not prescribe medication, they play a foundational role in medication management alongside psychiatrists.
- Consultation of other Mental Health Professionals: psychologists and psychiatrists consult with school social workers, corrections facilities, social agencies, and community organizations.
The Differences Between Child Psychologists and Psychiatrists:
- Medication Prescription: in most states, only a psychiatrist can prescribe medication to their patients.
- Education: psychiatrists are often in school for 10-12 years to complete a medical degree, while psychologists are in school for 8-10 years to complete a Psy.D or Ph.D. in research and practice.
- Specialized Care: Psychiatrists focus on medication and how it interacts with a child’s mental health symptoms whereas a psychologist focuses on treating mental health disorders through talk therapy and teaching skills to help cope with symptoms related to their disorder.
- Length of Session: Often, an initial visit with both a child psychologist or a psychiatrist will last 60-90 minutes, however, subsequent visits with a psychologist will last 45 minutes, and subsequent visits with psychiatrists will last 15-20.
When to see a child psychologist?
It could benefit your child to see a psychologist if they struggle to cope with emotional, social, or environmental changes at home or in any other setting (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). Psychologists are useful when children need support outside the home to help regulate feelings and emotions and learn proper social skills.
They are also helpful when parents are looking for a way for their child to receive mental health help without needing medication, or by trying talk therapy as the first line of defense instead of medication.
What common conditions do child psychologists treat:
- Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
- Depression and other Mood Disorders
- Cognitive and Developmental Deficits
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
When to see a child psychiatrist?
It would benefit a child to see a psychiatrist if the disorders suspected or diagnosed are more severe due to chemical imbalances. If a child is at a place where they are mentally or physically unable to apply coping skills without the use of medication due to severe symptoms, consulting a psychiatrist may be best.
Often, psychiatrists will suggest individuals see psychologists or other therapists if they feel it is necessary to regulate other aspects or if there is a common goal to be on medication short-term.
What common conditions do child psychiatrists treat?
- Bipolar Disorders
- Severe Depression
- Severe Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
- Co-Occurring substance use and mental disorders
Does my child need a psychologist or psychiatrist?
With everything laid out, here are a few tips on how to decide which is right for your child.
What factors to consider deciding whether contact a child psychiatrist vs. psychologist in your particular case?
It is important to decide if your child needs medication or not. Depending on the severity of their distress and impairments, medication may be warranted, and a psychiatrist is necessary. If your child is struggling with finding ways to cope in healthy ways with their social and emotional behaviors, it is best for them to see a psychologist.
If you are still unsure of which is necessary, a good rule of thumb is to have your child see a psychologist or primary care physician and talk with them about whether or not they think a trip to the psychiatrist is necessary.