What is a psychologist?

Psychologists study human behaviour. That means they are concerned with how people think, learn, feel and act. To become a psychologist, one must complete a recognised university degree. In broad terms, psychologists help people improve how they may deal with their emotional and/or behavioural issues so that they can better cope with their challenging feelings and behaviours. Psychology is a very vast field and these health professionals work in all avenues including health care, community and disability services, or research. While they work with people of all age groups, this article will focus on how psychology can help children and their families.

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Why a child may see a psychologist

Parents may seek professional help for their child for an array of different reasons. This may range from the child exhibiting difficult, aggressive or self-harming behaviours, the child showing signs of intellectual or developmental delay or learning difficulties, the child having issues with anxiety, self-confidence or social skills, or a background of trauma, grief or neglect (i.e. counselling) A psychologist may diagnose a child with certain medical conditions, although this is often achieved with an accompanying diagnosis from a Doctor also. A psychologist who works with a child and their family is usually involved in performing assessments for the purpose of establishing a diagnosis or determining the child’s level of functioning, or engages in regular therapy sessions to assist with achieving specific goals. It is also worth noting that psychologists do not prescribe medications to people.

How a psychologist may help a child and their family

In very general terms, psychologists help a child who is having problems with their behaviours and coping in their daily life, to enhance their overall wellbeing. When you first take your child to a psychologist, the psychologist will usually take a thorough history of the child’s social, family and medical background. This is crucial in understanding the current climate of the child’s life, including their formal and informal support systems (e.g. therapists, teachers, carers, support workers), so the psychologist gains some awareness about the context of the child’s difficulties.

Depending on the goals for therapy, a psychologist may complete a standardised assessment, such as a cognitive assessment, to ascertain the level of cognitive functioning (i.e. level of intelligence or IQ) the child has in relation to other children in his/her age group. This is often beneficial to establish any abnormalities or issues, hopefully as early as possible. The different areas that a psychologist may focus on can be divided into three main categories: physical, emotional and social, and cognitive development.

While individual children develop in different ways and at their own unique pace, there are developmental milestones that a child is expected to reach within certain timeframes or ages. For instance, children typically learn to keep their head up, crawl or walk by certain months of age.  A psychologist would assess a young child’s physical progression, as deficits in this area may point to other elemental problems. Similarly, a psychologist also analyses a child’s cognition and thought processes, as these skills are crucial to how they learn, observe and discern their environment, and form other important abilities such as problem-solving, memory, decision-making, reasoning and imagination. Parents often engage a psychologist to help their child prepare for school.

The social and emotional evolution of the child is also essential as they grow up, as this dictates how they feel about themselves, how they see themselves within their environment (including social contexts), and how they behave towards others and within the community. For many children with medical conditions or a disability, they may have problems managing and expressing themselves in constructive and socially acceptable ways. As a young child or a child with a disability may have impaired cognitive ability and/or communication skills, the child’s parents or carers commonly play a large role in therapy. In these situations (where the child’s capacity to learn, understand and communicate are grossly decreased, such as a child with severe autism or intellectual delay), the psychologist will often spend a large part of therapy working through strategies the parents can employ to enhance their understanding and management of the child’s behaviour. For example, the psychologist may help parents identify particular triggers in the environment that may enhance the child’s problematic behaviours, and work with parents to develop ways to anticipate and reduce the distress to the child.

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Psychology and other therapies

While a psychologist may be the only therapist involved in a child’s (long-term) care, it is also somewhat common for children with diagnoses or disabilities to also be engaged in other therapies, such as occupational therapy, physiotherapy or speech therapy. It is often regular practice for all therapists involved with a child and their family to regularly liaise and work together as a comprehensive unit, to ensure clarity about the specific roles and goals for a particular therapy, while also allowing all professionals involved to understand the child’s general goals.