What Is a Child Psychiatrist?

Healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat mental health disorders in kids

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor, either M.D. or D.O., who specializes in mental health diagnosis and treatment. Child psychiatrists are psychiatrists who diagnose and treat mental health disorders in children and adolescents as opposed to adults.

Psychiatrists, including child psychiatrists, are often confused with psychologists, who also diagnose and treat mental health conditions. The primary difference between the two is that psychiatrists complete medical school while psychologists have doctorate degrees in philosophy or psychology, Ph.D., or PsyD, respectively.

In general, psychiatrists may tend to focus on medication management, whereas psychologists tend to treat more with talk therapy, though some psychiatrists treat with talk therapy as well.

child psychiatrist talking to child and male adult in doctor's office

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Child psychiatrists work alongside other members of the healthcare team to provide care. For example, a child psychiatrist may work with a primary care physician to prescribe medications for depression that are compatible with other medications the patient may be taking. At the same time, the patient may also receive talk therapy treatment for depression from a child psychologist, therapist, or other mental health professional.

Concentrations

There are many conditions that child psychiatrists treat. They focus on mental health conditions in children, including behavioral, developmental, emotional, and other mental health issues.

Conditions Treated

  • Anxiety: When a child is overwhelmed by worries or fears, or when they do not outgrow worries and fears that are common in young children
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A developmental disorder that involves difficulty paying attention, controlling impulses, or regulating activity levels
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A developmental disability that impacts social, communication, and behavioral development to varying degrees
  • Conduct disorder (CD): A disorder characterized by repeatedly failing to comply with social standards or harming others with fighting, aggression, theft, lying, or other behaviors that violate the rights of others.
  • Depression: Feelings of sadness, low mood, or hopelessness that interfere with daily life or do not go away
  • Eating disorders: Disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, that involve harmful thoughts or behaviors relating to food
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Excessive or unreasonable thoughts and urges related to repetitive cleaning, checking, ordering, repeating, or hoarding, among other behaviors
  • Oppositional defiant disorder or ODD: Repetitive behaviors that are disobedient to a parent, teacher, or other authority figures
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A response to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic situation that involves reexperiencing the trauma, avoiding places or activities linked to the trauma, and physical response to thoughts of the traumatic event
  • Substance misuse: The use of alcohol, over-the-counter or prescription medications, recreational drugs, or any other substance that is excessive or not as intended
  • Tourette's syndrome (TS): Tics or repeated and uncontrolled sounds or movements

Procedural Expertise

Child psychiatrists treat their patients with medications, talk therapy, or a combination of the two. Depending on the condition being treated, different types of medications may be considered. Similarly, there are different types of talk therapy that may be used.

Although not commonly used in children, a child psychiatrist may also use treatments such as deep brain stimulation (DBS), vagus nerve stimulation (VNS), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

Types of Medications

Medications commonly prescribed for children with mental health conditions include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotic medications
  • Sedatives and anxiolytics
  • Hypnotics
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Stimulants

Subspecialties

Child psychiatry is a specialty within psychiatry, and there are subspecialties of child psychiatry. That means child psychiatrists can focus on specific areas of child psychiatry. These subspecialties may require more specialized training and lead to different career paths.

Academic Psychiatry

The academic psychiatry subspecialty focuses primarily on the education of psychiatrists or research. You may encounter an academic psychiatrist who is involved in training a child psychiatry resident, for example.

Forensic Psychiatry

The forensic psychiatry subspecialty focuses on issues relating to legal cases involving children. This may include divorce and child custody cases, child abuse cases, or any legal case in which the mental health of a child is relevant. These professionals may be called on to provide their expertise in decisions of competency for trial, the mental health component of defenses, recommendations for sentencing, or what may be best for a child.

Infant Psychiatry

The infant psychiatry subspecialty focuses on babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, and promoting mental health among children in these phases along with their families. Parents may seek an infant psychiatrist to support child development and help resolve issues relating to adjustment to environments or situations or other patterns of concern.

For example, a child psychiatrist specializing in infant psychiatry may be consulted if a baby has experienced a traumatic event, struggles to hit age-appropriate milestones, show emotions, regulate emotions, or if the pediatrician or parents have concerns.

Psychoanalysis

A child psychoanalyst is a child psychiatrist or other child mental health professional that has had extensive additional training in understanding child development and how a child’s mind works. They can help the child better understand and manage challenging feelings about themselves and others more effectively. This often involves building a trusting relationship with the analyst over time. The family is often involved in understanding the child’s struggles.

Research in Child Psychiatry

Child psychiatrists involved in research, such as brain imaging research and clinical drug trials, conduct studies to learn more about child mental health and possible treatments. Some child psychiatrists conduct research and treat patients. While parents and children seeking care may not be involved in the research, they may benefit from what is learned by child psychologists through the research process.

Systems of Care

Some child psychiatrists provide care to children and families outside the traditional healthcare settings. This may include schools, mental health or primary care centers in the community, treatment programs for mental health concerns, juvenile justice programs, or social service organizations. The variety of community coordination allows more children and families to receive care that they may otherwise not get.

Training and Certification

Child psychiatrists attend medical school following four years of education at the undergraduate level in a field related to medicine. Medical training can be four or more years of allopathic medical school (M.D.) or osteopathic medical school (D.O.).

Following medical school, child psychiatrists complete residency that includes one year of a hospital internship, plus two or three years of residency in the field of general psychiatry and two years of residency in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry.

Additionally, child psychologists may take an exam to become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Appointment Tips

Appointments with child psychiatrists can often be made without a referral. However, some health insurance plans may require a referral to a child psychiatrist to cover the services. In this case, a pediatrician, family physician, or other healthcare provider can provide a referral.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has an online tool to search for and find providers based on location. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, or ABPN, provides a search tool to check the status of board certification. State medical licensing boards can be searched to confirm the status of a provider’s medical license. It may also be helpful to ask friends and family members for trusted recommendations.

Preparing For Your First Appointment

When preparing for an appointment with a child psychiatrist, it can be helpful to:

  • Make a list of concerns, symptoms, and estimates of how long the issues have been going on.
  • Make a list of questions so nothing is forgotten during the appointment.

Some appointments may be attended by parents and the child together, and other appointments may be attended by just the parents or just the child. It is a good idea to confirm these details at the time of scheduling the appointment to be aware of what to expect and prepare as needed.

A Word From Verywell

Navigating childhood behavioral, developmental, emotional, and mental health challenges can be difficult for both children and adults in their lives. If you and your child are struggling with any of these issues, there are child psychiatrists and other health professionals who are trained to diagnose, treat, and support families along the way. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or family physician for recommendations, including the possibility of working with a child psychiatrist.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Infant psychiatry. Updated 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children's mental disorders. Updated March 22, 2021.

  3. American Psychiatric Association. What is psychiatry? Updated 2021.

  4. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Psychiatric medication for children and adolescents: part II - types of medications. Updated July 2017.

  5. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Subspecialty training/different careers in child psychiatry. Updated 2021.

  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Child and adolescent psychiatry research. Updated 2021.

  7. American Psychological Association. Psychiatrist. Updated 2020.