Why see a child psychologist?
All kids are a challenge sometimes, aren’t they? Aren’t things like refusing to cooperate, throwing tantrums, or disobeying rules a normal part of growing up? Isn’t testing the limits how kids learn about themselves and the world? Don’t parents develop strategies to manage these behaviours?
Well, yes – to a point.
Sometimes, however, a child’s behaviour can become problematic and disruptive. The parenting strategies don’t seem to work. The child’s behavior is impacting on school, friendships and family life. This may indicate a significant issue that requires the expertise of a qualified child psychologist.
So how do you know if your child’s behaviour is part of the normal developmental process or if it needs to be addressed by a professional?
This article addresses this question. It explains what child psychology is and does. It considers the characteristics of normal behaviour and development, and identifies some indicators that point to the need to consult an expert.
It is intended to provide information not advice. For advice or support, you should consult appropriate child development professionals
What is child psychology?
Child psychology is a specialised field of psychology that focuses on understanding the factors that influence the behaviour and thinking of children and young people as they mature from birth through adolescence. The discipline studies the physical, cognitive (thinking, learning, memory, etc.) and social/emotional aspects, seeking to explain how these interact to influence a child’s development.
It thus provides insight into why children and young people of different ages behave the way they do – and why they may have problems.
Child psychologists apply this knowledge to help children and adolescents grow and develop in ways that are healthy and appropriate. They seek to help children and adolescents reach their full potential.
Child psychologists are university trained professionals with particular expertise in child development. This expertise provides them with an understanding of the influences that contribute to normal child development and also on factors that might lead to psychological problems during childhood. This enables them to support and educate children experiencing behavioural problems, social challenges, emotional difficulties and educational problems in a variety of contexts.
They can make a significant impact on the well-being of a child, helping them understand the feelings they are experiencing and to develop positive strategies to overcome their challenges.
In Australia all registered psychologists undergo a four-year undergraduate degree. Specialising as child psychologist involves additional training in areas such as child development, child mental health, and family relationships (Queensland Health, 2022). This additional training develops their understanding of factors that influence normal growth and development and also of factors that might lead to psychological problems during childhood. Child psychology is primarily concerned with developmental psychology while a child clinical psychologist focuses on clinical analyses, diagnosis and treatment. Child psychologists apply evidence based interventions, verified by scientific research, in their work.
Psychologists who specialise in working with children can be found in a range of settings including private practice, community mental health services, public and private hospitals, schools and research organisations. Roles can include providing counselling, educational or developmental psychology, and research. They can work on an individual basis or as part of a collaborative team.
Child psychologists work with children who have learning difficulties, behavioural problems, emotional or mental health challenges. They provide a range of services including educational and developmental assessment and help with learning difficulties, counselling for temporary stressors arising from a traumatic experience and mental health issues such as childhood and teenage depression or anxiety disorders.
As well as working with children themselves, they also work with the child’s significant adults. This can include teachers, carers and parents. Involving significant others in consultation can help them to understand and help manage the issues a child may be experiencing.
When to consult a child psychologist
Child psychologists can help to identify whether a child’s behaviour is within normal parameters, or if it is inappropriate and needing intervention. When considering seeking the help of a psychologist, it may be useful to have some understanding of what constitutes normal behaviour and development.
Contemporary thinking about childhood development premises that children move through distinct developmental stages from infancy to adolescence. Each of these stages is associated with developmental milestones. These are skills and behaviours considered developmentally appropriate for that particular stage. The Healthline website has an example of how these developmental stages and milestones have been mapped.
Normal behaviour is consistent with these developmental stages and milestones. This means that what is considered normal is not fixed or static but changes as children progress through each stage. What is considered normal for a pre-schooler generally isn’t considered normal for a teenager. It’s normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break rules while their cognitive abilities, social skills and emotional abilities are developing, just as it’s normal for teenagers to be moody and to show some disrespect and defiance as they go through puberty.
In addition, normal behaviour varies greatly within each developmental stage. Children learn and develop in their own time. Some children will reach milestones earlier or later than their peers. Some may progress through an identified stage more quickly or more slowly than other children. The time frames involved aren’t exact. However, most children do develop skills and abilities in roughly the same order. Progress can be viewed as a continuum.
Understanding about developmental stages and milestones can reassure parents that their child is developing normally for their age.
What is Inappropriate Behaviour?
Since normal behaviour has such broad parameters, it can be difficult to identify inappropriate behaviour – particularly as some challenging behaviours are considered normal for particular developmental stages. Certain behaviours, however, should raise concerns – especially if consistent attempts to resolve them have been unsuccessful.
Indicators of inappropriate behaviour include inability to manage emotions such as anger, frustration, or disappointment in an age-appropriate manner, frequent tantrums or aggression, and failure to reach milestones. These can be a response to temporary stressors in the child’s life or they might point to more enduring disorders.
An expert can tell you what’s normal and what’s not.
Do I need an appointment with a child psychologist?
There are many reasons for seeking the advice of a child psychologist.
Experts suggest a consultation if a child’s behaviour is impacting on school, friendships and family life. They will assess your child, provide a diagnosis if appropriate, and develop strategies to address the problems if required.
A consultation may be helpful even for very mild problems if parents are feeling some concern. This can be reassuring.
In addition, research suggests that many parents have expectations that are higher than what is perceived as developmentally appropriate for a child’s age. This can cause them to feel anxious. A professional specialist can assess the behaviour. If there are no serious issues they can reassure parents and provide information about stage appropriate development and milestones. This can encourage parents to modify their expectations
On the other hand, if problems are detected, they can be addressed before they get worse.
Assessment and treatment
Child psychologists work in different ways to other psychologists. In addition to working with children themselves, they also work with adults such as school teachers and family members central to the children. Involving significant others in consultation can enable them to understand and help manage the issues a child may be experiencing.
Sessions with a child psychologist can involve an assessment phase and a treatment phase. During the assessment phase, it is determined whether there is a problem.
A comprehensive assessment will identify or rule out issues that may be behind the behaviour. Where problems are identified, the assessment can be followed by a treatment phase where the psychologist, child, parents and other adults if appropriate, actively work together to develop and implement strategies to manage the problem.
Child psychologists use a range of therapies aimed to involve and engage children. Examples include art therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, parent/family therapy and play therapy. While they don’t prescribe medication, they can refer a child to a psychiatrist or paediatrician if medication is indicated.
As this discussion highlights, most kids demonstrate challenging behaviour sometimes. Indeed, some challenging behaviours are accepted as a normal part of childhood growth and development. We deal with these as everyday family issues. Sometimes, however, challenging behaviour can be disruptive and difficult to deal with. When this occurs, experts in child psychology can provide help.
Consultation with a child psychologist does not just help with the immediate problems. It provides a child with insight and skills that will remain relevant and beneficial throughout their life.
This information is not intended as a substitute for informed professional advice. If you are concerned about the behaviour of a child you should consult with an appropriate child psychology professional.
Queensland Health (2022), Understanding Psychologists: https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/PDF/qcycn/Psychologists-working-with-children-training-and-registration-requirements-fact-sheet.pdf