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Child, adolescent and family

Working in child, adolescent and family psychology

By Rita Princi

I began my studies as a mature age student and mother of two, so I am aware of the importance of providing children with appropriate role models. I pursued a career in the field of child, adolescent and family psychology because I have always had a strong interest in child development and the effects of parental and family problems on children's and adolescents' self-esteem and coping ability.

My Honours and Masters projects both examined variables concerning children. My Honours thesis examined the relationship between everyday problem solving and parental generativity, which is drawn from Erik Erikson's theory and involves parents at mid-life who seek to share their skills and knowledge through guidance and mentoring in order to help their children achieve their full potential. For my Masters I examined the relationship between nutrition (in particular, iron, vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids) and children's cognitive performance.I was also influenced by my interest in the stages of brain development, and the effect of parental anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders on children.

I also worked as a research assistant on research projects looking at memory and ageing, genetic indicators linked to eating disorders, and while studying I provided Lovaas therapy for a child with autism.

Before studying psychology, I worked in the legal field and in human resources. During study, and since completing my Master of Clinical Psychology, I have gained experience across a range of contexts: community health centres; a child and adolescent mental health service; the Department of Education and Children's Services; a chronic pain unit; and recently in private practice.

In a typical day I may see a variety of cases, either for assessment or continuing treatment, that fall under the heading of child, adolescent and family psychology, for example:

  • Assessing a child experiencing behavioural problems at home and school, then determining the direction of treatment, perhaps identifying the reinforcers that may be maintaining the behaviour, providing information to the parents regarding normal child development and, if warranted, conducting psychometric testing to assess for any learning difficulties;
  • Assessing and treating an adolescent experiencing heightened anxiety as a result of end-of-year examinations and uncertainty about future goals;
  • Assessing the effect of marital breakdown on children;
  • Providing information to a parent about the effect of domestic violence on children; and
  • Conducting a family therapy session between parents and grandparents to discuss appropriate parenting of a young child, and the importance of consistency in applying parenting techniques.

Other tasks may include research and reading to prepare for the following day's clients, providing the outcome of assessment and treatment to referring general practitioners, and preparing reports on the results of psychometric testing.

The strength of this area of psychology is the flexibility available in working with the clients. It may be just with a child, perhaps the parents alone, or parent and child together. Because more elements of the system are involved, there is a greater chance of effecting enduring change.

I always endeavour to offer easy-to-understand information to parents, as well as to children and adolescents. In many instances, once parents become aware of ‘normal' child and adolescent development, and the effect of parental stressors on children, they learn to apply more appropriate parenting.

It is important for students to gain a thorough understanding of different aspects of psychological theories namely, biological/physiological, social/environmental, developmental, cognitive and behavioural theories in order to work effectively with children, adolescents, adults and families.

For this field of psychology, the future challenges lie in understanding and working with children, adolescents and families from diverse cultures. The waiting list in community health services will necessitate more specialist private psychologists to provide services to the wider community.