A child psychiatrist is a physician who focuses on the mental health of children and adolescents up through the age of 18 years. They also work with families, and their main focus is on diagnosing and treating mental health conditions that affect how young people think, feel, and act. Child psychiatrists are trained to assess and treat sociocultural, biological, behavioral, psychodynamic, and familial issues relating to children and adolescents.
Psychiatry is a specialized field of medicine that encompasses a wide range of mental health conditions. Child psychiatrists can help children and families deal with depression and anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, eating disorders, and more. They have extensive knowledge and training in the psychological and biological factors that may come into play when it comes to a child’s mental health.
Keep reading to learn more about the field of child psychiatry. We’ll look at the primary functions of child psychiatrists, how they differ and specialize by age group, and how you can find the right in-person or online psychiatrist if your child needs help.
With all of this information, you’ll know when to see a psychiatrist to address your child’s psychological needs.
What Does a Child Psychiatrist Do?
What do child psychiatrists do? A child psychiatrist can diagnose and create treatment plans for children who have mood and/or behavior disorders. Treatment plans can consist of therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. As a part of a child’s overall care team, a child psychiatrist has the unique training and perspective that may not be found elsewhere.
In general, a child psychiatrist can:
- Evaluate behavioral, mental, developmental, and emotional health
- Perform psychiatric examinations
- Perform psychotherapy if and when needed
- Order laboratory tests
- Order diagnostic imaging tests
- Examine all tests and exams
- Prescribe medication when and if needed
- Diagnose and treat a range of mental health conditions, including:
- Anxiety disorders – for example, panic disorders or attacks, acute stress disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or phobias.
- Mood disorders – like depression or bipolar disorder.
- Behavioral disorders – such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or conduct disorders.
- Psychotic disorders – like paranoia, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, or delusions.
- Personality disorders – including narcissistic personality and borderline personality disorder.
- Eating disorders – such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating.
- Developmental disorders – including autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities.
- Substance abuse – drug or alcohol abuse and/or withdrawal symptoms.
Before booking an appointment, you might be wondering, “Do I need a referral to see a psychiatrist?” The answer depends on your child’s situation. Sometimes treatment plans will focus solely on the child, while other times they can involve parents, teachers, or other adults and family members in a child’s life. Child psychiatrists also often encourage group therapy with others not part of a child’s immediate family or the day-to-day world.
Medication can be a form of treatment in some cases. Psychiatrists know when prescribing medication might be beneficial in refocusing negative behavior or treating a mental health condition. They also understand which types of behavioral therapies may be most effective in helping a child.
When thinking about what a child psychiatrist is, it’s important to keep in mind that the right mental health professional fills an essential role for children. This role is an advocate.
Child psychiatrists are often actively involved with and engaged in ensuring that everyone is on the same page and has the same goal for a child. From school faculty and administration to other doctors, outside agencies, and anyone else in a child’s life, a child psychiatrist can be the instrumental piece that helps create a solid and unified front, with the child’s mental health as the center of importance.
How Does a Childhood Psychiatrist Differ From an Adult/Teen Psychiatrist?
A childhood psychiatrist is slightly different in focus and methodology from an adult or even a teen psychiatrist.
They still require the same standard four years of medical school, but child psychiatrists should also complete, at the very least, three years of residency training. This training will be in general psychiatry with adults, with an additional two more years of specialized training focusing on psychiatric work specifically with children, adolescents, and families. Training is done in an accredited residency that focuses on psychiatry for children and adolescents.
While a doctor can technically practice child psychiatry without being board-certified in this specialty, board certification is something you may want to look for. It ensures that the doctor has the training and competency necessary to work with children and teens effectively.
There are special nuances that should be noted when working with this age group. The education and experience a child psychiatrist gets through additional training can be well worth the time or effort it takes to find someone specifically board certified as a child psychiatrist.
Experience With Families & Child Advocacy
Learning to work with families effectively is also a big component of a child and adolescent psychiatrist’s training. And yet another essential part of psychiatric training specifically for children focuses on how to consult with other mental health professionals and physicians, schools, and other agencies on a child’s behalf.
How Does a Child Psychiatrist Treat Children?
A child psychiatrist can treat children and adolescents through many different techniques:
- Psychosocial interventions: School-based or community treatment programs and rehabilitation and relapse prevention programs have been effective in providing support and education for children who have psychiatric needs.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy has proven extremely effective in helping children. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy, supportive therapy, parent-child therapy, family therapy, group therapy, crisis intervention, and psychodynamic therapy are all forms of treatment that can help a wide range of symptoms and conditions for children.
- Medication: Sometimes, medications, like mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety medicine, or stimulants, may be prescribed to help children.
- Non-medication or somatic treatments: Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, creative and art therapy, play therapy, expressive therapy, biofeedback, and animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP), are all non-medication options that can be helpful in certain situations.
How to Know if Your Child Needs Counseling
Once you know more about the field of child psychiatry, it might feel easier to determine if you should seek counseling for your child. Mental health and development are incredibly important in children and teens. If you see negative behaviors or emotions that appear to interfere with your child’s daily life, it may be time to ask for help. If your child seems unable to function, or they’re exhibiting behaviors that are dangerous to themselves or other people, you should see a child psychiatrist.
Child psychiatrists are skilled at evaluating and treating young people who are having difficulty coping. Problems from everyday life, or those that are the result of a trauma (like the death of a friend or family member), or even a major life change (like divorce or anything else that causes instability) can have a dramatic effect on a child’s mental health and well-being.
If you notice any of the following in your child, consider reaching out to a child psychiatrist:
- Severe mood swings or frequent temper tantrums
- Bursts of aggression or anger
- Sudden and unexplained change in eating habits
- A sharp decline in school performance or a sudden dip in grades
- Hyperactivity or an inability to concentrate
- Constantly moving, inability to sit still or quietly
- Obvious disobedience
- Sleep problems or persistent nightmares
- Substance abuse
- Vandalism or theft
- Rejecting or showing disrespect to authority figures
- Self-harm or self-destructive behavior
- Inappropriate sexual behavior
- Threats of harm to themselves for others
- Threats of suicide
How to Find a Child Psychiatrist
Knowing exactly what a child psychiatrist is the first step. Finding the right doctor is the next part of the process. You can find child or adolescent psychiatrists through local mental health associations, your child’s pediatrician, a medical school psychiatry department, or even national organizations like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). The American Psychiatric Association (APA) can be another resource.
You also have to consider your budget. How much does a psychiatrist cost? The price all depends on the psychiatrist. If convenience is a concern, online therapy is a great option for children and adolescents with busy schedules and demands. It can take some of the stress off adding one more thing to the plate. By getting therapy online, children and their families can find the support and guidance they need to effectively manage mental health conditions in a loving, nurturing environment with familiarity and comfort, which may even allow for more productive work and progress.
1. What is Child and Adolescent Psychiatry?. Aacap.org. https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Medical_Students_and_Residents/Medical_Students/What_is_Child_and_Adolescent_Psychiatry.aspx. Accessed September 1, 2021.
2. Home. Aacap.org. https://www.aacap.org/. Accessed September 1, 2021.
3. Children and Adolescents. Psychiatry.org. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/professional-interests/children-and-adolescents. Accessed September 1, 2021.