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.

Do I Want to Be 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 healthcare 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.

Job Requirements

Both counselors and social workers are commonly required to hold a master's degree for work or licensure. Certain psychologists, such as school psychologists, can be licensed with only a master's degree, but a doctoral degree is typically required for psychologists. Various counselors, such as family, mental health, marriage and private practice counselors, must be licensed in order to work in all states. Clinical social workers and psychologists must also be licensed.

Beyond graduate school, most counseling, clinical social worker and psychologist positions require a prescribed number of supervised clinical hours, the passage of a national examination and completion of continuing education credits. The following table presents the core requirements for becoming a counselor, clinical social worker or psychologist, as stated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Counselor - commonly requires a master's degree; clinical social worker - master's degree; psychologist - master's or doctoral degree
Degree Field Counseling, social work or psychology
Licensure and Certification State licensure is required in every state for various counselors, as well as all clinical social workers and psychologists
Experience For licensure: two years of experience or 3,000 hours for clinical social workers; two years of experience or 2,000-4,000 hours of experience for various counselors; 1-2 years of experience for psychologists
Key Skills Good listening and communication skills, patience, ability to work with many different types of people

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

  • Look for opportunities to volunteer or work in a counseling-related setting. Graduate schools like to see applicants who have demonstrated their commitment to mental health, and completing a volunteer or work experience is a good way of doing this. Such experience can also help a student refine his or her interest in counseling or psychology. Work experience also gives students the opportunity to develop relationships with professionals in the field who could supply letters of recommendation, further strengthening a student's graduate school application.
  • Create an application timeline. Graduate school applications have many components, and different schools may have different requirements. 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

Aspiring clinical social workers or counselors can earn a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) or a master's degree in counseling, respectively, for their graduate school education. Counseling programs 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. Social work programs tend to have a social systems approach, with coursework including topics such as 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.

Students who want to become psychologists can earn a master's degree in psychology in order to prepare for licensure as a school psychologist or a doctoral degree in psychology to prepare for a variety of other positions, such as a developmental psychologist, counseling psychologist or clinical psychologist. These 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. Counseling programs may focus on preparing students to work with populations that have less severe mental health issues. 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.

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.

Success Tip

  • 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.

Step 4: Pass a State or Professional Examination

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.

Step 5: Obtain State Licensure

Individuals must hold a license before using professional titles such as Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychologist. 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 6: 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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