Psychology

How Much Do Child Therapists Earn?

How Much Do Child Therapists Earn?
The variables that go into determining how much money you can earn as a therapist go far beyond the specialty that you choose. Where you work and where you live are two factors that can play a significant role in the number of cheesesteaks that you can buy at the end of the workweek. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella March 26, 2020

Some child therapists make more than physicians, while others can earn less than the manager of a fast-food restaurant. Learn how to make the most of your career improving children's mental health.

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You may find it hard to believe, but the practice of children’s mental health is relatively new. According to the Children’s Mental Health Network, as recently as 1982 two-thirds of all children with severe emotional disturbances were not receiving the services they needed. Now, less than two decades later, we understand that children require treatment for many of the same issues as adults, including:

  • Mental illness
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance abuse

The children’s mental health field is important, and it’s growing. According to Mental Health America, roughly 13 percent of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 had one or more major depressive episodes in the past year, an increase of 99,000 incidents over the previous year. Child therapists are in demand.

Some child therapists earn more than physicians, while others make roughly the same as a manager at McDonald’s. Chances are you’ll do better than the latter as a child therapist. Better still, you’ll help patients overcome significant challenges.

If you’re considering this career, you’re probably wondering how much child therapists make. This article has your answers. It covers:

  • Careers in child therapy
  • What does a child therapist do?
  • How much does a child therapist make?
  • Education requirements for child therapists
  • What specialty certifications do child therapists need?

Careers in child therapy

There are five categories of mental health professionals that practice child therapy, according to the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. They are:

Other medical professionals, such as physical therapists or occupational therapists, work with adolescent patients and might have an effect on their mental health. However, as they are not mental health workers we have omitted them from this overview.

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“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

University and Program Name Learn More

What does a child therapist do?

Child therapists use therapeutic methods to address a child’s behavior and mental health issues. Psychotherapy techniques that therapists use include:

  • Child behavior therapy
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy
  • Parent training in behavior management
  • Play therapy

Not every child therapist employs each of these techniques. For instance, psychologists are less likely to involve parents in the session than are marriage and family therapists, whose practice typically addresses broader familial issues to help their child patients. MFTs might also run group therapy sessions, which child psychologists usually don’t do.

As medical doctors, psychiatrists are the only type of child therapist that can actually prescribe medicine to their patients. Child psychiatrists also use other therapeutic methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help their clients.

Your specialty might also help determine where you practice. For instance, many child counselors are employed by organizations such as juvenile detention centers, hospitals, community agencies, and schools (be careful though, guidance counselor is a different career altogether). Some social workers might be employed by the government to provide services to many underserved children

With proper certification, each of these mental health professionals can operate in private practice, which can often mean greater work flexibility and better pay.

How much does a child therapist make?

Psychiatrists earn an average annual salary of $226,000, according to US News & World Report. If you are a child psychiatrist, this number could be even higher. PayScale reports that child psychiatrists earn an average of $282,000 per year (the same hourly rate as the price of the world’s most expensive cheesesteak). Psychiatrists earn even more than physicians, who draw an average salary of $194,500.

By comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) the average:

All of these professionals can work in schools and clinics, or manage their own practice. Working in private practice has the highest earning potential (and also the lowest, if you can’t find any clients). Private practice clinical psychologists earn an average of $109,898 and private practice social workers earn an average of $76,266, per year.

Even counselors—the lowest-paid child therapists, on average—can earn a six-figure salary if they are savvy about their business. These numbers can be a bit misleading since those in private practice need to spend money on the costs of running a business (e.g., advertising, rent, insurance), but the potential rewards of working for yourself are still far greater than working for someone else.

Location might be another determining factor in your income. As a rule, therapists (and pretty much every professional) who work in cities are better paid than those in rural areas, where the cost of living is also generally lower. Additionally, some states have higher average salaries than others. The BLS lists the top states for clinical psychologists as:

  • California ($124,450)
  • New York ($128,520)
  • Arkansas ($128,130)
  • Oregon ($134,830)
  • New Jersey ($164,110)

The variables that go into determining how much money you can earn as a therapist go far beyond the specialty that you choose. Where you work and where you live are two factors that can play a significant role in the number of cheesesteaks that you can buy at the end of the workweek.

Education requirements for child therapists

Each of these careers requires a graduate degree. Often this means earning a master’s degree, which takes at least two or three years of full-time study to complete. These degrees can be pursued in person, online, or a combination of both (known as hybrid study). Some professions require a doctoral degree, which can take two or more years after completing a master’s.

Child psychologists

Child psychologists must earn at least a master’s—usually a Master of Science in Psychology—to practice, though many have doctoral degrees. You might also consider earning a master’s in educational psychology, especially if you want to join the ranks of school psychologists.

US News & World Report lists the following among its best psychology doctoral programs:

  • Stony Brook University
  • University of California – Los Angeles
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Child psychiatrists

Child psychiatrists undergo the most training of any child therapists since they need to complete four years of medical school after they earn a bachelor’s degree (usually in biology or chemistry). After medical school, psychiatrists must complete a residency, which requires another four years.

US News & World Report‘s top psychiatry programs include:

  • Harvard University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • University of California – San Francisco

Child social workers

Child social workers can sometimes find jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, but social workers are not allowed to work as child therapists until they have completed a Master of Social Work (MSW). Opening a private practice requires completing a supervised training program and becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW).

Top schools for social workers, according to US News & World Report, include:

  • Columbia University
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
  • Washington University in St Louis

Marriage and family therapists

Marriage and family therapists must earn a master’s degree—typically a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy—which includes classes in child psychology as well as:

  • Clinical Counseling Techniques: Methods and techniques for clinical counseling, focusing on therapeutic communication and interventions.
  • Cross-cultural Communication: Understanding cultural differences in communication for effective therapy in diverse settings.
  • Developmental Science: Examines human development across all life stages, including physical, emotional, and social aspects.
  • Family Systems: Studies family dynamics and relationships, focusing on systemic therapy approaches.
  • Human Sexuality: Explores the psychological, biological, and social aspects of human sexuality and its impact on individuals and relationships.
  • Psychological Theory: Foundational knowledge in various psychological theories and their application in therapy.
  • Trauma Treatment Techniques: Approaches and methods for treating trauma, including understanding its psychological impact and evidence-based treatments.

Schools with marriage and family therapy programs that have been approved by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) include:

  • Oklahoma State University (Main Campus)
  • San Diego State University
  • Texas Tech University

Licensed mental health counselors

Licensed mental health counselors must have a master’s degree in counseling or a counseling-related discipline. There are many kinds of counselors, including substance abuse and marriage and family counselors; child counselors address a child’s behavior and well-being. Northwestern University is among schools that offer a child and adolescent emphasis.

US News & World Report‘s top-ranked programs for student counseling include:

  • University of Florida
  • University of Maryland – College Park
  • University of North Carolina at Greensboro

For each career, you will likely need to meet a fieldwork requirement to graduate. You will usually be required to complete a thesis or practicum as well.

What specialty certifications do child therapists need?

Psychologists

Child psychology is a specialty, according to The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (ABCCAP). The ABCCAP defines specialists as doctoral degree-holding professionals “whose competencies are discriminately higher than the basic level of competence certified by state licensure.” In order to earn certification in Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology through the ABCCAP, psychologists need to complete a peer-reviewed examination.

Psychiatrists

Child psychiatrists are certified through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. They must complete a training program that meets Accreditation Counsel for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) standards for accreditation and receives approval from the Residency Review Committees. Afterwards, you must pass the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Certification examination.

Social workers

MSW-licensed social workers can become Certified Advanced Children, Youth & Family Social Workers (C-ACYFSW) with:

  • 20 continuing education hours
    • 3,000 hours (two years) of paid supervised experience with children and families
  • An MSW license
  • Compliance with the NASW code of ethics

You will need a master’s degree to practice as a licensed clinical social worker, however.

Marriage and family therapists

After completing a master’s degree, marriage and family therapists must apply for licensure through either a state board or the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, which offers the MFT National Examination. The MFT exam tests basic competency. MFTs must recertify every two years by completing continuing education credits.

Licensed mental health counselors:

A licensed mental health counselor is certified to work with children after becoming a National Certified Counselor (NCC) through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Requirements for this certification include:

In addition to a general license, you might decide to earn a school counselor certification from the NBCC. This credential, which is only available to NCC-holders, will provide extra training for those who want to work with children. Becoming a National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) involves completing more fieldwork returning to school to complete classes in counseling for:

  • Families
  • Addiction
  • Trauma, abuse, or violence
  • At risk youth, children, and adolescents

You will also need to complete coursework in program development and counseling consultation.

Other requirements include:

  • More supervised fieldwork
  • Another endorsement
  • Two years (at least) of work experience as a school counselor

Some certifications are not required but will help you become a more effective child therapist. For instance, the play therapy certification is open to all child therapists. According to the Association for Play Therapy, play therapy is an effective approach that “honors children’s unique developmental level and looks for ways of helping in the ‘language’ of the child: play.” It is especially effective with children between the ages of three and 12.

Specialty certifications can help you define your practice and may allow you to charge higher rates. The process of earning them will also make you a more effective child therapist. In this way, earning certifications can be considered both an investment in the next generation and your business.

(Updated on January 23, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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