If you’re seeking help for a child who’s struggling, you may find yourself faced with a bewildering range of different mental health professionals. It can be challenging to understand what skills each has to offer, how their training is different, and which might be right for your child.

A word to watch

When you’re choosing a mental health professional you may hear the terms

Psychotherapist or psychotherapy used in a variety of ways. Psychotherapist is a sort of blanket term used to describe someone who practices some form of talk therapy for mental illness.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers all use the term psychotherapy to describe what they do. But since “psychotherapist” is a self-designated term, not everyone who is called a “psychotherapist” or “therapist” is credentialed, has relevant experience, or is even trained in their stated area of work. If you’re considering seeing someone who is labeled as a psychotherapist, make sure to ask what training he had, whether he is licensed, and what kind of treatment he offers.

To help you find the right mental health professional for your child, we’ve put together an overview of the types of mental health specialists, including what their areas of expertise are, how they are trained and licensed, and what services they offer.


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, or MD, who is trained to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. They should be “board certified” in general psychiatry. Some psychiatrists specialize in children. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are MDs who are fully trained in general psychiatry and then have at least two more years of training focused solely on psychiatric disorders arising in childhood and adolescence, including developmental disorders. They should be “board certified” in child and adolescent psychiatry as well as general psychiatry. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists (AACAP) allows parents to search its members with its psychiatrist finder.

How they can help

General psychiatrists and child and adolescent psychiatrists are skilled at diagnosis, prescribing medication, and psychotherapy.


A psychopharmacologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the use of psychoactive medications in order to affect mood, feelings, cognition, and behavior.

As with psychiatrists, some psychopharmacologists specialize in children. A Pediatric psychopharmacologist is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has extra training, skills and experience in the use of medication in the treatment of children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders.

How they can help

A psychopharmacologist has intensive knowledge of psychoactive medications and can be instrumental in helping you find the right meds for your child. She should know when other kinds of therapy should be integrated with medication in the treatment plan, and be able to either offer it or refer patients to other professionals for that therapy.


Psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders, but they are not medical doctors (MDs) so they cannot prescribe medication.

Different credentials

Psychologists have a doctorate, which may be either a PhD or a PsyD. They’ve done at least one year of supervised clinical work after completing the doctorate; this may or may not be in a child mental health setting.

Psychologists with PhDs do graduate training for 5-8 years in both clinical psychology and research. They are trained as both scientists and clinicians, and are often involved in clinical studies.

Psychologists with a PsyD generally complete 4 years of graduate training focused on clinical techniques, including testing and treatment.

Like psychiatrists, some psychologists specialize in a child psychology. The most highly trained psychologists do additional post-doctoral training in their area of specialization. Psychologists who have passed national proficiency exams are certified by the American Board of Professional Psychologists or “ABPP.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) maintains a database of members. You can narrow your search by the ages each practitioner serves and her area of expertise.

How they can help 

Psychologists may utilize several forms of cognitive behavioral therapy tailored to specific disorders, such as exposure and response prevention for OCD, dialectical behavioral therapy for depression and self-harm, and parent-child interaction therapy for disruptive behavior disorders.

Because these treatments involve evidence-tested techniques, it’s important to make sure the practitioner you choose has training and experience with the treatment she is recommending.

Psychiatrists and psychologists often work together to provide care to patients who benefit from a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.


Neuropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in the functioning of the brain and how it relates to behavior and cognitive ability. Most have completed post-doctoral training in neuropsychology. They may have either a PhD or a PsyD. Pediatric neuropsychologists have done post-doctoral training in testing and evaluation.

How they can help

They perform neuropsychological assessments, which measure a child’s strengths and weaknesses over a broad range of cognitive tasks, and they provide parents with a report that highlights those cognitive strengths and weakness, and forms the basis for developing a treatment plan. The report also serves as evidence for requesting school accommodations, and as a baseline for measuring whether interventions are effective.

Neuropsychologists also work one-on-one with children struggling in school, to help them devise learning strategies to build on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.

Neuropsychologists who have passed national proficiency exams are certified by the American Board of Professional Psychologists-Neuropsychology or “ABPP-N.” The American Association of Clinical Neuropsychology maintains a list of members.

School Psychologists

School psychologists are trained in psychology and education and receive a Specialist in School Psychology (SSP) degree.

How they can help

School psychologists can help identify learning and behavior problems, evaluate students for special education services, and support social, emotional, and behavioral health. For more information on school psychologists or to look up your child’s school, go to National Association of School Psychologists .

Social Workers

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master’s degree in social work and is licensed by state agencies. LCSW’s are required to have significant supervised training and expertise in clinical psychotherapy.

How they can help

LCSW’s do not prescribe medication, but often work with the family and the treating physician to coordinate care. In a school setting, they often offer support for children with behavioral issues and the teachers who work with them. The National Association of Social Workers provides tools for locating help. 


Pediatricians are physicians who specialize in treating children and adolescents. They have 3 years of training after medical school and are typically the first professional a parent consults when concerned that a child may have a psychiatric or learning problem.

How they can help

As medical doctors, pediatricians are allowed to prescribe all medications, but they may have little or no training in psychiatric disorders, and limited experience with psychotropic medications. They may also have inadequate time to spend with each patient to do careful diagnostic assessment and regular monitoring of a child’s progress. Some pediatricians practice in networks that enable them to consult with a specialist or invite a specialist to take over a child’s treatment. Parents who are not comfortable with the care available from their pediatrician (or whose pediatrician is not comfortable treating their child) should seek out a specialist—if medication is involved, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Pediatricians also do medical testing that can be important in ruling out possible non-psychiatric causes of troubling symptoms.

Developmental and behavioral pediatricians

Developmental and behavioral pediatricians are pediatric sub-specialists who have completed two additional years of training in evaluating and treating developmental and behavioral problems, and hence may offer both more expertise and more experience than a general pediatrician when it comes to children with developmental disorders, though they may not have training in psychiatry and expertise in psychotropic medications. The Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics has a list of clinicians.

Neurologists and Nurses

A neurologist is a medical doctor who specializes in disorders of the nervous system — which, of course, includes the brain. Neurologists can identify nervous system causes of some worrying symptoms and aid in the treatment of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders including cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Some neurologists specialize in children. They’re called pediatric neurologists or

Child neurologists. Pediatric neurologists complete five years of training and clinical experience in pediatrics and pediatric neurology after medical school. Pediatric neurologists specialize in the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disability, Tourette’s, ADHD, and learning disabilities. The Child Neurology Society maintains an online resource.

Pediatric Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners have advanced degrees, either a master’s or a doctorate, and can prescribe medication. A pediatric psychiatric nurse practitioner has training in treating and monitoring children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders. Some work as part of a team in a pediatricians’ office; some practice independently. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners has a tool for locating its membership.


Related: How to Work Well with Your Child’s Therapist