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The Difference Between a Child Psychologist & Child Psychiatrist

author image Jean Jenkins
Jean Jenkins has been writing professionally since 1994. She has written medical research materials for the American Parkinson's Association, the Colorado Neurological Institute and the Autism Society of America. Jenkins has specialized in neurology, labor and delivery, high-risk obstetrics and autism spectrum disorders. She holds a Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of Colorado.
The Difference Between a Child Psychologist & Child Psychiatrist
A young boy talks to a child psychologist. Photo Credit dima_sidelnikov/iStock/Getty Images

Your child may be experiencing difficulties at home, at school or both. You could be seeing behaviors that worry or even frighten you and decide it may be time for professional help. You should consider several factors when choosing the right professional to work with your child. Psychologists and psychiatrists are different in their methods and scope of practice. One may even refer you to the other if they think it may help your child's mental state.


Child psychologists and child psychiatrists have different functions, but both are dedicated to helping children achieve and maintain a healthy physical, mental and emotional well-being.

The function of a child psychologist is to help your child problem-solve, develop healthy coping skills and build self-worth. His focus may be on how your child thinks, grows and reacts. These professionals seek to build a relationship of trust so your child will feel safe in sharing her thoughts and feelings.

A child psychiatrist's function is to help your child take steps toward mental health, but they often incorporate medications that can make transitions easier. They will access your child's physical and mental health needs and may prescribe medications to help balance the brain.


A child psychologist must be licensed by the state he is practicing in. He most likely holds a Ph.D., Psy.D. or an Ed.D., according to Kidshealth website. All three are intensely trained in the physical, emotional, social and mental development of children. They may specialize in toddlers, elementary school-aged children, or teens.

Psychiatrists achieve an MD or DO, Doctor of Osteopathy, and are doctors with advanced training in psycotherapy as well as pharmacology. This allows them to prescribe medications, as well as work in the clinical field of psychiatry. They are often consultants for psychologists who suspect a child may benefit from certain medications, such as anti-depressants, ADHD drugs or anti-anxiety medications.


Psychiatrists are classified into two groups, with many sub-specialties in each group. The first is psychopharmacologists, who are experts on how psychiatric drugs work and how all medicines work together. The second type is psychotherapists, who also look at medical issues, but focus on your child's thoughts, reactions and coping skills. They may work one-on-one, in groups and with families. Child-adolescent psychiatrists also have two additional years of training above regular psychiatrists.

Psychologists have a Ph.D. and can be found in many different areas of society. Besides clinical psychologists, there are neuropsychologists who work with children with autism, epilepsy, brain injuries and other neuro-development disorders. Psychologists are licensed and found in medical settings, schools, rehabilitation centers and private practice. School psychologists have a master's degree or doctorate specifically in school psychology.


KidsHealth advises to consider the following when choosing a professional to work with your child: a current license to practice in your state, type of experience, coverage by your insurance, specialties, friendliness and authentic ease with your child. Do not settle on one until you and your child feel comfortable. If your child's not comfortable with someone, she will be unable to achieve the trust that is necessary for open communication.


The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry alerts parents to warning signs that may require professional intervention. In younger children they are a decline in grades, anxiety about going to school, persistent nightmares, physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches, aggression towards others or self, threats to harm or kill himself or others.

In pre-adolescents and adolescents, watch for a decline in grades, sleeping or eating changes, inability to concentrate, sexual acting out, prolonged negative mood and attitude, severe mood swings, repeated use of alcohol or drugs, severe dieting, throwing up or using laxatives, consistent violation of others rights, opposition to authority, abusing animals, vandalism, theft, truancy, self-injuries, threats of killing herself or others.

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