How to Become a Teen Counselor: Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a teen counselor. Research the education requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in teen counseling.

Do I Want to Be a Teen Counselor?

Teen counselors work with adolescents in mental healthcare facilities, clinics and schools. They might encourage them to discuss their problems, guide them in adjusting to changes in their lives, or diagnose and treat more serious mental or emotional disorders. Depending on their work setting, these professionals might work on weekends and evenings in order to meet their clients' scheduling needs.

Job Requirements

To practice this profession, one needs to be licensed as a professional counselor by the state in which he or she practices, typically as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Most states require these professionals to hold at least a master's degree and to earn two years of clinical experience before granting them licensure. The following table presents the core requirements for becoming a counselor:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's required*
Degree Fields Social work, counseling, marriage and family therapy*
Licensure and Certification Licensure or certification is required in most states*
Experience Two years or 3,000 hours of direct clinical practice typically is required before a counselor can earn full licensure*
Key Skills Good listening and communication skills, patience, ability to work with many different types of people*
Computer Skills Testing and analysis software, spreadsheet software, student information database systems**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring counselors will first need to earn a bachelor's degree. Students might choose to major in psychology or a related field, such as social work or education. If majoring in a field with no required psychology coursework, students should choose to take some electives in psychology. Courses like introductory, abnormal, personality and adolescent psychology can expose students to a range of mental and behavioral theories and prepare them to apply to graduate school.

Success Tip:

  • Volunteer or intern in a counseling-related setting. Students can demonstrate a commitment to the counseling profession and gain exposure to different areas of the field by working or volunteering in a mental health facility. Having this experience can make students more competitive candidates for graduate school. Work experience will also give students the chance to develop relationships with professionals in the field who could supply letters of recommendation, further strengthening a student's graduate school application.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

The career path a teen counselor chooses will determine his or her major at the master's level. An LCSW must have a Master of Social Work, while both LMHCs and LMFTs must have a degree in counseling or marriage and family therapy. Master of Social Work programs focus on both direct human counseling and community-based social work with coursework in human behavior, social welfare policy, social justice and social work research. These programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

Master of Arts in Counseling programs, on the other hand, focus more on individual therapy techniques and psychological testing. Coursework could include group counseling theory, career development and addiction counseling. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs is the accrediting body for such programs. In general, all counseling and social work programs at the master's level incorporate field experience into their curricula.

Success Tip:

  • Look for electives in courses directly related to adolescents. Social work and counseling programs require many general practice courses, but finding opportunities to take electives in coursework relating to young populations could help prepare students for placement in the field later on.

Step 3: Apply for Provisional Licensure

Some states require counselors-in-training to hold provisional licenses while they are completing their postgraduate work experience. Requirements vary by state. In Nebraska, for example, provisional licensure applicants must provide proof of completion of an accredited master's program that includes the proper coursework, practicums and internships. Provisional licenses often have time limits, after which a counselor is required to apply for full licensure.

Step 4: Complete Work Experience

Becoming licensed as an LCSW requires 3,000 hours of supervised experience in a clinical setting over the course of two years, while LMHCs and LMFTs must complete between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of such experience. Some states require that a certain percentage of these hours be completed in direct work with clients. The rest of the time may be spent on related activities, such as case management, evaluation or research. Some licensing boards require regular reports on counselors' progress.

Step 5: Obtain State Licensure

Most states require licensure candidates to pass an appropriate examination before earning licensure. In some cases, the state board of counseling will provide the exam. In other cases, states will accept scores from the Association of Social Work Boards clinical examination or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. States usually require a copy of one's graduate school transcript and documentation of supervised clinical work experience.

Step 6: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

State licenses must be renewed on a regular basis. Oftentimes, practitioners need to meet continuing education requirements by completing a certain number of hours of coursework in state-approved continuing education programs. Failure to comply with these requirements and to renew one's license in a timely manner can lead to a suspension of licensure.

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