By Anita Hermans, Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Lakeside Psychology.
People often ask me what does a child psychologist do and why would a child need to see a psychologist? These are both excellent questions and I hope to give you an overview right here!
A child psychologist focuses on a child’s development and helps to resolve any difficulties that may occur as a result of problems with development. When we think of the word ‘development’ we automatically think of a child’s physical development, that is how well they are growing, how much they weigh, whether they are rolling, sitting, crawling, or walking. However, a child’s development includes many more areas, and it is these less commonly talked about, but extremely important areas of a child’s development, that a child psychologist helps with. These include:
Cognitive development: understanding cause and effect, problem solving, using their imagination in play; and learning to read.
Social development: making eye contact, returning a smile, sharing, taking turns, and making friends.
Emotional development: recognizing emotions, naming how they feel, responding appropriately to other people’s feelings, learning to control their unpleasant feelings (such as fear, sadness, and anger).
Language development: making and copying sounds, using single words and basic sentences, following instructions.
What influences a child’s development?
There are many factors that influence how a child develops, some of which we can influence, while others we can’t. Here are some of the factors that affect child development:
This initially includes their ‘biological blueprint’ they inherit from their parents, such as whether they will have blue or brown eyes, blonde or black hair and whether they are taller or smaller. Genetics also determine if a child will inherit certain disorders from their parents such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.
A child’s development is also impacted by the style of parenting they receive. Research shows us there are various patterns of interaction between a child and parent, and this influences the bond or ‘attachment’ they form with one another. This pattern of interaction becomes the child’s ‘default’ style of relating not only to their parent, but to other people with whom they form a relationship later in life.
A child’s development is also affected by their family’s circumstances. For example how many siblings they have and which number child they are in family (something referred to as ‘birth order’), whether they witness their parents living in a mostly harmonious, conflictual or abusive relationship, or if a parent or sibling becomes seriously ill and/or passes away.
Once a child starts attending day-care, kindergarten or school, their development is impacted by everything their new environment offers. This includes participation in activities not previously encountered, engaging with new caregivers and teachers to get their needs and wants met and socialising with peers. Similarly, a child’s development is impacted by their involvement in other community-based groups and the various developmental opportunities these provide, for example through sporting, scouting or religious groups.
Recognizing problems with development
As you can see there are so many factors impacting on a child’s development, it’s no wonder that no two children develop at the same rate! So how can a parent tell if their child’s development is ‘normal’? Often parents have a hunch something is ‘not quite right’. They might ask friends with same age children if their child is speaking, toilet trained or able to write their name. They might look online and search for information about children’s typical ages and stages of development. Sometimes a carer or teacher may tell a parent they have noticed something ‘different’ about the child, or a maternal and child health nurse or doctor might detect something is ‘delayed’ at a scheduled check-up. If this comes as a surprise for the parent, it can be quite distressing and parents often unfairly blame themselves for their child’s developmental problem.
Fortunately, there are many issues a child psychologist can help with. Some of the most common issues that children see a psychologist for include: anxiety particularly phobias and separation anxiety, autism spectrum disorders which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, grief and loss often in regard to parental separation, behavioural problems, ADHD, bullying, sibling rivalry, toileting problems, sleeping issues, depression, and this list also goes on!
What does a child psychologist do to help?
The child psychologist’s job is to meet with you and your child to find out exactly what the issue is and how to best address it. This is usually achieved through an initial interview with one/both of the parents, possibly the use of a behavioural questionnaire, followed by an assessment session with the child. Given that children are often unable to speak about the problem, the use of carefully selected toys can allow children to communicate their thoughts, feelings, relationships and experiences through play. Play is non-threatening and builds a companionable relationship with the child.
Once a child is around 7-8 years of age, they are able to think more abstractly rather than concretely (thanks to their ongoing cognitive development!) and can take part in more ‘talking’ rather than ‘playing’ therapy. However much work with a child of this age still involves the use of hands-on creative activities and visual props to help explore concepts a child can’t see (e.g. anxiety) and to remind them of helpful techniques once they leave the office.
A parent’s role is very important when a child sees a psychologist, from providing historical and current information, to sitting patiently in the consult or waiting room, to practising new strategies at home with the child. Parents are the expert on their child and a child psychologist’s job is to support and work alongside the parents. Sometimes, we need to see the parent alone in order to do this and because not all conversations are suitable for ‘little ears’.
If you think your child would benefit from seeing a psychologist, please talk to your doctor. They will be able to discuss the issue with you and refer you to a child psychologist. The other option may be for your child to see a psychologist through their school.