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Child Life Therapist: Career Options, Job Duties and Requirements

It takes least four years of college education and a great deal of training to become a child life therapist. Learn about the career options and job duties to see if this is the right career for you.

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Becoming a child life therapist requires a bachelor's or master's degree in a relevant subject area, such as child and family studies, child development, or psychology. One important responsibility of a child life therapist is to provide ill children with an emotionally-safe environment by engaging them in activities like therapeutic play. Here, you'll earn about other job duties, as well as a few career specialization options.

Essential Information

A child life therapist, also known as a child life specialist, helps children prepare for and cope with severe illness, surgery, or hospitalization. These specialists treat children ranging from infants to adolescents, using therapy and play to help them and their families deal with stress and fear.

Required Education Bachelor's or master degree
Other Requirements Supervised internship; certification recommended
Projected Growth (2014-2024)* 15% (marriage and family therapists)
Median Salary (2016)** $39,743

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com

Career Options for Child Life Therapists

A child life therapist might work with a hospital, ambulatory clinic, emergency department, hospice, camp, or community program for children with special needs. Some dental and pediatric offices also have child life programs. Child life therapists can specialize in a particular type of patient, such as those undergoing cancer treatments or those dependent on medical technology. They also might specialize in a particular age group, such as infants, toddlers, or adolescents. Child life therapists can advance to positions as managers or directors of child life programs.

Job Duties of Child Life Therapists

Child life therapists engage in non-pharmacological pain management and use therapy techniques to provide chronically- or acutely-ill children with an emotionally-safe environment. Much of their time is spent engaging children in play, which can promote emotional and physical development, as well as feelings of success. Therapeutic play also can help children work out their fears, anxieties, and confusion and might even lessen their physical pain. Medical play, which might incorporate dolls and real medical equipment, can prepare children for various medical procedures. Additionally, child life therapists often work with recreation therapists, who help children gain social and emotional skills through recreational activities, such as arts and crafts, wheelchair sports, and horticultural endeavors.

Child life therapists also provide education and support to a patient's parents and siblings. This can include relating information about a child's medical condition and sharing ways to cope with it. Child life specialists also might be trained in grief counseling to help a deceased child's family members. Additionally, they might coordinate with members of the medical team to educate them about the psychological needs of a particular patient. They also might direct pre-admission facility tours and supervise child life volunteers.

Child Life Therapist Requirements

A child life specialist typically has either a bachelor's or master's degree in an area like child development, child and family studies, psychology, or early childhood education. Though not required, child life therapists might seek the Child Life Council's Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) designation. To be eligible for the certification exam, a child life therapist must have completed a relevant bachelor's degree program and a supervised internship of at least 480 hours. Continuing education is required to maintain certification (www.childlife.org).

In addition to the proper education, child life therapists must be able to communicate well with children, families, and medical staff, with particular skill in explaining medical procedures to children on different developmental levels. They also must be able to handle the stress of working with children in life-threatening situations.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

According to PayScale.com, the majority of child life specialists earn between $30,137 and $52,490 a year, as of 2016. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov) does not provide information specific to the field of child life therapy, the BLS did project that the employment of marriage and family therapists will likely grow by about 15% between 2014 and 2024.

Child life therapists can work in a number of environments, including hospitals, camps or hospices. These therapists may specialize in a particular type of patient, such as within a certain age group or a certain illness. The ability to communicate well with children is a very important skill for child life therapists to have.

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