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How to Become a Teen Therapist: Education Requirements and Career Info

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

Should I Become a Teen Therapist?

The term 'therapist' is an informal name that could refer to professional titles including counselor, social worker or psychologist. Teen therapists may work at in-patient mental health care facilities, hospitals, clinics or private practices. Dealing with struggling teens can be stressful, and many therapists may need to work in the evening or on weekends, when young people are free to meet. Most of these professionals secure full-time work.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree (minimum), master's degree (often required), doctorate (sometimes required)
Degree Field Counseling, social work or psychology
Licensure and Certification Requirements vary by state
Experience Requirements vary, usually 2 years or 3,000 hours
Key Skills Good listening and communication skills, patience, ability to work with many different types of people
Salary $48,040 is the median annual salary for family therapists (2014)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step to becoming a teen therapist is earning a bachelor's degree. Students can elect to study psychology or a related field, such as social work or education. Alternatively, a student may choose to study a different, unrelated liberal arts field. Students majoring in an unrelated field should take some electives in psychology. Topics that can help students prepare for graduate school and gain adequate exposure to the field of psychology include abnormal psychology, personality psychology and adolescent psychology.

Success Tips

  • Volunteer or work in counseling. Work experience gives students the opportunity to specialize their studies and develop relationships with professionals in the field who could supply letters of recommendation, strengthening a student's graduate school application.
  • Create an application timeline. Making a list of all potential programs and their corresponding application requirements may help a student stay organized while applying to graduate school. Students should pay special attention to deadlines for taking the GRE, asking for letters of recommendation and writing personal statements.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree or Doctoral Degree

A Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) or a master's degree in counseling may be available in marriage and family therapy, school counseling, clinical counseling, mental health counseling or substance abuse counseling. Topics of study could include counseling theories, human growth and development, abnormal psychology, psychopharmacology, evaluation of practice and research methods. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs accredits master's programs in counseling. Coursework includes human behavior in the social environment, social justice, data analysis, clinical practice with groups and clinical practice with families. Field experience is often integrated in the curriculum and research may or may not be a requirement. Social work programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Both types of programs include a practicum or internship.

Developmental psychology, counseling psychology or clinical psychology programs are available in Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) formats. Psy.D. programs traditionally focus more on practice and less on research, while Ph.D. programs have a large research component and always require a dissertation. More serious illnesses, such as schizophrenia, fall more in the territory of clinical psychology. Both Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs may require a pre-doctoral internship.

Step 3: Complete Work Experience or Post-Doctoral Internship

Work experience for master's degree graduates requires approximately 3,000 hours completed over the course of two years. Usually, at least half of these hours must be completed in direct client work. Research state licensing requirements early on in work experience or internship. State requirements for licensure vary, and many states specify how a work experience or post-doctoral internship must be structured. Failure to meet the standards set out by the state could delay or prevent licensure. Researching state regulations during the early stages of one's work experience or internship will help candidates meet all requirements.

Doctoral graduates must complete an approved post-doctoral placement to gain the experience necessary for licensure. During the post-doctoral placement, graduates conduct supervised clinical work and undergo periodic evaluations with an adviser.

Step 4: Pass the Licensing Exam

Passing a licensure examination is a common requirement for licensure as a counselor or psychologist. In the case of counseling, sometimes the state board of counseling will provide the exam, and sometimes states will accept scores from the Association of Social Work Boards Clinical Examination or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. For psychology, the most commonly accepted exam is the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.

Licensure applications require a graduate school transcript from an approved institution, documentation of an approved work experience or internship and a passing score from an appropriate national or state examination. Some states also require an ethics exam.

Step 5: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

State licenses must be renewed on a regular basis. Counselors and psychologists may need to meet continuing education requirements by completing a certain number of hours of coursework in state-approved continuing education programs. For psychologists, a common requirement is 20 hours of continuing education per year, or 40 hours every two years. Failure to comply with these requirements or to renew one's license in a timely manner can lead to a suspension of license.

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