A child counselor helps adolescents and young children through various life challenges by providing coping skills that allow them to mature and flourish both mentally and emotionally. It's an admirable calling that relies on a multitude of intrapersonal and problem-solving skills.
Becoming a child counselor isn't easy; it requires a degree as well as hands-on experience. And there are many areas of specialization to consider, but if it's something you're interested in, you're in luck. The job outlook for becoming a child counselor is very good, and this guide can help you succeed. Below we outline a step-by-step path to becoming a child counselor.
What is a Child Counselor?
A child counselor helps adolescents and children navigate trauma and mental health issues. Adults tend to view the world differently than kids do, making it difficult for traditional adult therapists to treat children, especially during a crisis. Pediatric counselors know how to connect with children on their level and can help them build firm mental health foundations. They tend to work with children dealing with trauma, be it from a family death, divorce, or bullying.
Steps to Become a Counselor Working with Children:
To become a child counselor, there are several steps you have to take:
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Behavioral Science, Social Science, or Psychology
Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling with a Focus on Child Development
Step 3: Complete Internship and Licensure Requirements
Step 4: Pass Certification and Licensure Exams
Step 5: Earn Any Additional Certifications for Your Specialty, and Keep Up with Continuing Education Credits
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree
Practicing child counselors typically have a master's degree or higher, but you have to earn a bachelor's degree first. Preferably, your bachelor's will be in Behavioral Science, Social Science, or Psychology. Some universities offer a bachelor's degree in child development, which is also an excellent undergraduate option as either a second major or a minor. Taking elective or additional classes in human development, child therapy, and counseling skills is also ideal.
Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling
A master's degree in counseling with an emphasis on child development provides the meat of a child therapist's education. A good master's program will arm you with knowledge in counseling techniques and psychological testing. It will also prepare you to run group and family counseling sessions, which are often part of child and adolescent therapy.
If you decide a master's degree isn't enough, you could continue from here to a doctorate either in counseling or psychology. A doctorate in counseling sets you up to teach or participate in research. However, a master’s in psychology is all you need to become a practicing school, developmental, or child psychologist.
Step 3: Complete Internship and Licensure Requirements
Once you have a well-rounded, child-counseling-focused education, you're ready for on-the-job training in the form of an internship. Internships are vital because they'll provide insights you can't gain anywhere but in practice. They're also typically required. Every state has its own prerequisites for becoming a child counselor, but they all include supervised hours. Many states require paid clinical experience as well, often several thousand hours’ worth before taking the licensing exam.
If you plan on working in research, either at a university or federal facility, some states allow you to work without a license. Typically, those who go this route are planning to further their education. They'll eventually earn a doctoral degree in child psychology, but they aren't usually interested in clinical practice.
Step 4: Pass Certification and Licensure Exams
As noted, different states have different license and certification requirements. Before you sit for any exam, though, you'll usually need to pass a standard background check. Then you can sign up for a state-approved counselor exam. Many states require you to pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE). Alternatively, they may require you to pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE).
You can find exactly what your state requires via the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC).
Step 5: Earn Any Additional Certifications for Your Specialty
Some professional organizations offer additional certifications that center around a specialty. There are certifications for child grief counseling, trauma-informed treatment, and many other issue-specific needs. On top of earning additional certifications, you'll need to pay attention to continuing education credits. To stay in good graces with most state licensure requirements, you'll need to take a certain number of the National Board of Certified Counselors' accredited classes every year.
What Does a Child Counselor Do?
Child counselors or child therapists often treat a broad range of mental health concerns. They may have some patients who need short-term help, dealing with a divorce or a loved one passing away. Other patients may need longer-term help to address behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorders or other developmental issues. Alternatively, child counselors may focus on one childhood condition. They could specialize specifically in grief counseling or in working with children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, as examples.
No matter the case, they often work in institutions connected to children. Schools, hospitals, outpatient care centers, and juvenile detention facilities all hire child counselors, child therapists, or child psychologists. Domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, and other social service organizations rely on them as well.
Child counselors can also choose to open a private practice. In that case, they'll see children in their own office. Many child counselors who work for themselves decide to make school or house calls too. They may find their patients are more comfortable talking in a familiar setting.
On a typical day, a child counselor in any setting can expect to meet with patients and parents of patients. They'll test, diagnose, and treat their patients using various therapeutic techniques that are often play-oriented for the younger children. They'll also typically work with a team of healthcare professionals to implement the best possible treatment plans for their patients. So, it's a lot of communication, analysis, and problem-solving every day.
Child Counselor Skills to Acquire
Education and certifications aren't all it takes to be a great child counselor. Cultivating a variety of personal skills will help both you and your future patients succeed.
Creative counselors are able to push past traditional patterns and rules. They help their patients find new interpretations for life issues and are better able to connect to a wide variety of patient types, from young children to adolescents.
- Reversible Thinking
Reversible thinking refers to our ability to argue two differing perspectives. As a child counselor, you'll need to be able to see things from the perspective of the child's family, as well as from the child's point of view.
Many children that child counselors work with have undergone severe trauma of some sort. Learning to use soft, calming tones, acting with compassion, and ridding yourself of erratic gestures in conversation will help your patients feel comfortable approaching you with their problems.
- Empathetic Communication
To understand a child, a counselor needs to be able to put themselves in the child's shoes. Careful listening is essential, as is staying up to date with the latest kid and teen trends. Knowing which shoes and tv shows are in vogue may help you connect to your patients.
The better you can relate to the concept of "play", the better you'll do as a child counselor, especially if you work with very young children. Having a positive, upbeat, and enthusiastic presence rubs off on patients and may even help them enjoy therapy. If a child looks forward to working with you, the work will be more effective.
The need to gain a child's trust as a child counselor or therapist is obvious, but you'll need to gain parental confidence too. Retaining confidentiality, respecting family privacy, and acting with integrity will help ensure your success as a child therapist.
Children and adolescents can't solve problems the way adults can. A child counselor has to be able to guide a child to a solution. If a child counselor pushes a solution on a child, it could be detrimental. Instead, the child should feel that they and the counselor reach an answer together.
Becoming a child counselor requires a certain level of education that you can't get around. A master's degree in counseling is vital, but there is some room for variance on the child counselor career path. Many opt to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology or another related field after their master's degree rather than pursue an internship and licensure. A doctoral degree in counseling allows you to teach and work on upper-level research projects, but it's not necessary to be a practicing child counselor.
While working towards licensure, there are several different paths as well. You could choose to work in mental health facilities, rehabilitation clinics, schools, or correctional facilities to meet your state's clinical hours requirement.
For those who already have a bachelor's or master's degree in an unrelated field, you'll need to reach out to a university program you're interested in. Some of your completed courses may count towards a related degree, but you'll still need a master's degree in counseling to progress as a child counselor.
Child Counselor Career & Salary
Now that you know what education and skills you need to become an effective child counselor, let's look at the job outlook. Below we cover several job possibilities, career outlook, and average salary information for child counselors.
Where Might You Work?
Child counselors work wherever you find children and teens in need.
That includes all of the following:
- Military Bases (with families)
- Rehabilitation Centers
- Mental Health Facilities
- Correctional Facilities
- Domestic Violence Shelters
- Private Practices
- Youth Centers
Many child counselors work in federally funded facilities like public schools or juvenile correctional centers. They may work with military families as well. When working for government-sponsored entities, you'll encounter strict but stable rules and a steady lifestyle. Other child counselors choose to work in private facilities, be it a private hospital, rehabilitation center, or their own private practice. Working for private entities tends to offer more in-job flexibility and possibly prestige, but that often comes with long hours and fewer benefits.
Alternatively, child counselors could decide to work in research or continue their education. Child counselors who work in research typically find themselves in schools and universities. Those who decide to continue their education could teach with a doctorate in counseling. Alternatively, they could pursue endorsement or education allowing them to enter a career as a child, school, or developmental psychologist.
All mental health counselors are in high demand. And that includes those who specialize in working with children. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, The job market in this area is expected to grow by 22% over the next ten years, which is far faster than most job areas.
Mental health counselors earn a median salary of about $49,000 per year, but more experienced counselors could earn over $87,000. In general, salaries are highest for counselors who work for government facilities. For those who go on to earn a doctoral degree in psychology, the salary goes up significantly. Child psychologists boast a median salary of $89,000 per year. With experience, that amount easily tips over $100,000.
The demand for child psychologists and child counselors both is on the rise. Awareness of the importance of mental health services for schools, correctional facilities, and social services is increasing.
As noted, over the next ten years, mental health counselor jobs are projected to increase significantly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts psychologist jobs will only increase overall by 3%, but the majority of that growth will come from child-focused areas.
Child counselors know all about healthy development and mental health. Other jobs require similar skills. With tiny education tweaks or additions, you could also put your talents to work in any of these positions:
- Family Therapist
Family therapists work to restore family harmony by addressing mental, emotional, and cognitive issues different family members may be dealing with. The requirements to become a family therapist vary by state, but a master's in counseling is often the first step.
- School Counselor
School counselors work with adolescents as they navigate changing personal, social, and academic landscapes. States typically require a license and masters in counseling to become a school counselor.
- Art Therapist
An art therapist guides patients through drawing, painting, or other forms of self-expression to relieve the patient's suffering. It's particularly effective with children, though you can practice it with adults. States have different licensing requirements for art therapists, but a master's in counseling is usually the first step.
- Animal-Assisted Therapist
If you have a love for animals and helping children, you might consider becoming an animal-assisted therapist. Children who have a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder sometimes respond exceptionally well to animals. You technically only need a bachelor's in psychology for this position, but a master's in counseling will broaden your job and salary options.
- Social Worker
Social workers often specialize in helping children. They may connect children and families to community resources or specialize in foster care. A master's in counseling will open many doors in a social worker's career path, though technically, a bachelor's in social work is enough to get started.
- Developmental Psychologist
With a doctoral degree in psychology, you could become a developmental psychologist. They study the human lifespan as a whole including cognitive, social, and emotional growth. Many specialize in helping children reach specific developmental milestones.
- Child Psychologist
A child psychologist works to prevent, diagnose, and treat cognitive, social, and emotional disorders in children. As a psychologist rather than a counselor, you're more likely to work with patients dealing with severe and diagnosable conditions rather than a single life-event like death or divorce.
- School Psychologist
School psychologists work to optimize the students' ability to learn and the teachers' ability to teach. They use educational, developmental, and clinical psychology to assist students in life, with a focus on solving academic problems.
Find Child Counselor Jobs Near You
Advancing from Here
Becoming a child counselor is by no means the end of the road. As mentioned above, you could go on to receive a doctorate in psychology or a doctorate in counseling. A doctorate in counseling falls under the classic Doctorate of Philosophy, or Ph.D. umbrella. Earning one allows you to gain upper-level employment at universities, research institutions, and government facilities.
If you like working with patients, though, a doctorate in psychology or Phys.D. is probably the better option. With both the Ph.D. route and the Phys.D. route, you'll come out as a licensed psychologist. However, Ph.D. programs tend to emphasize research while Phys.D. programs emphasize clinical practice.
Society needs child counselors. That's only becoming more obvious as we realize how vital it is to build firm foundations for mental health at a young age. If you want to help children, have a calm and approachable demeanor, empathetic listening skills, and the willingness to earn a master's degree, becoming a child counselor might be your perfect career choice.
Psychology & Counseling Career Paths