I’ve been approached several times by caregivers and teachers who are concerned about a child’s mood or behavior. They’ve all asked if I think the child should see a psychologist. Many also want to know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist.
Firstly, a psychologist is interested in thoughts and behavior and typically observes, interprets and records how we interact with others and our environment. There are many different areas in psychology. So, psychologists who work with children can have different areas of graduate training. For example, someone may spend several years receiving training in school psychology and primarily work within the school system. Or, a degree in developmental psychology may have been acquired, accompanied by supervised training working with children. Many children who enter psychotherapy typically see a clinical psychologist; someone interested in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders.
Psychologists are different from psychiatrists, although they share similar goals. Both treat people coming in with a variety of problem, can do therapy and research. Both are interested in thoughts and behaviors. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, who received training in medical school. After becoming MDs, they receive additional training in psychiatry. They are qualified to prescribe medication. Psychologists, on the other hand receive academic graduate training at a college or university. Psychologists are only able to prescribe medication, following additional training, in a few states. Psychologists tend to do more therapy and assessment, such as personality tests and academic evaluations, than psychiatrists. Both professionals can work in a variety of settings, including private practice, schools and hospitals.
Caregivers typically refer children to a psychologist. It may be noted that the child is behaving atypically at home or at school. For example, John may be failing some of his classes, or Jane may be sad more often than not. Frank may have been born pre-term and his parents may be concerned about his development. Francine may be a teen exhibiting delinquent behavior. Other reasons a child may see a psychologist include:
- difficulty living with a medical condition
- victim of abuse or neglect
- emotional and developmental problems, including psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, autism, retardation, anxiety)
- behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and/or developmental problems in family, school, childcare, juvenile justice system, and/or peer group contexts
- signs of cognitive or developmental deficits
- coping with injury, trauma and loss
- having parents with chronic physical or mental health conditions
- challenges or changes in family composition (e.g. divorce, single-parent household, custody arrangements, step-parenting)
Caregivers should pay attention to certain behaviors and changes and they should be raised with a professional. Red flags to keep in mind include:
- Failure to achieve developmental milestones
- Marked fall in school performance
- Poor grades in school despite trying very hard
- Severe worry or anxiety
- Persistent nightmares
- Persistent immature behavior
- Sexual acting out
- Severe mood swings
- Aggression or opposition to authority
- Strange thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or unusual behaviors
Keeping in mind that early intervention is the best intervention, caregivers should voice their concerns. Psychologists may be sourced 1) in the yellow pages, 2) in the United States, through the American Psychological Association’s online directory, 3)through the psychological organization for your area, 4) through referrals from your child’s pediatrician, 5)via Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), 5) in local hospitals.
“No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” – Abraham Lincoln