Children and adolescents progress through many life changes and challenges in their family, peer groups, schools, and other environments. From birth to their teenage years, children and adolescents can sometimes experience roadblocks in their development which can pose a physical, emotional, or mental concern for family members, teachers, and themselves. Treating young clients requires appropriate training, a special level of patience and the ability to connect with both children and their families.
Children and adolescent counselors provide their clients with coping skills to achieve emotional and mental health. The challenges facing their young clients include attention disorders, learning difficulties and behavioral issues, as well as the emotional impact of divorce, death, serious illness, or emotional trauma brought on by child abuse, familial issues or bullying. Teenage clients also present a wide array of concerns such as dealing with peer pressure, eating disorders, self-mutilation, drug abuse, sexual confusion, depression, anxiety and in some cases the early signs of a serious mental illness.
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Professional and mental health counselors that work with children and adolescent populations are experienced and educated from many different backgrounds. Some may be licensed professional counselors, others clinical mental health counselors or even child psychologists. Child and adolescent counselors may take a holistic approach to treating their clients that may include counseling with the young client’s parent(s) or relevant family members. The counselor evaluates a young client’s frame of mind, while exploring their family dynamic, social circle and schooling to understand how their everyday environment impacts their mental health.
School counselors provide similar support to children but focus more on how their social, personal, and academic development affect their experience with education. School counselors should obtain their master's degree in school counseling rather than specialize in child and adolescent counseling/therapy. While both careers address the same populations, each approach concerns in a different manner.
Some of the concerns that children and adolescents may present in counseling sessions may include:
Child and adolescent counselors encourage clients to discuss their daily experiences and emotions and help them process their reactions and adjust to major life changes, such as divorce or death. A skilled and successful practitioner will teach their clients to develop skills to change their behavior, cope with life’s challenges, and make good decisions. Often a child and family counselor will coordinate treatment with other practitioners, such as a psychiatrist and/or social worker. As appropriate, they will refer young clients to treatment facilities or community programs.
Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or psychology field.
Earning your bachelor's degree in a counseling or psychology related field sets the beginnings of child development theories, counseling skills, human development, and approaches to child therapy and counseling.
Step 2: Earn a master’s degree in counseling with a focus on child and adolescent development.
Child and adolescent counselors earn their master’s degree in counseling or a related field to fine tune their education with regards to child development theories, counseling techniques with children, review of mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders, educational and psychological testing and measurement, and individual, group, and family therapy.
Step 3: Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.
As a crucial aspect of accredited counseling degrees, graduate supervised counseling experience allows students to dive into their future licensed role as a child counselor. This experience with postgraduate clinical hours provides crucial insight into work with children postgraduate.
Step 4: Pass any required exams for certification/licensure.
Some states and/or counseling programs require the passing of a counselor examination for graduation or certification/licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
Step 5: Apply for and earn additional certifications.
A professional license is required in all 50 states to practice as a child counselor.
Requirements for a state license typically include completion of a counseling master's degree program from an accredited university, two years of supervised post-graduate clinical experience and a passing score on a state -administered licensing exam. Additionally, practicing counselors may be required to take continuing education to maintain their license. Specific licensure requirements vary by state. See state license requirements.
Career Outlook for Child Counselors
Child and adolescent counselors work in a variety of settings, including private practice, mental health centers, public and private schools, residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, psychiatric hospitals and more. Because counseling children and adolescence is viewed more as a population/demographic preference for counselor's, sessions may occur with marriage and family therapists, licensed professional counselors, clinical social workers, or child psychologists. Counseling with this population can also occur in schools with school counselors or psychologists.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors is projected to grow 19 percent from 2014 to 2024. The BLS also reports that the average annual salary for mental health counselors is about $43,000 and for marriage and family therapists - $48,000. Employment opportunities for mental health counselors are concentrated highly in California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York with an overall average earning of about $45,000 per year. For marriage and family therapists, employment is highly concentrated in California, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania - earning, on average, about $50,000 to $60,000 annually.