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Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and Psychologist: What’s the Difference?

According to a recent study, many children and teenagers who seek help for an anxiety disorder receive medication, and not counseling (2023). Although anxiety disorders in children have continued to rise drastically over the last decade, the number of children receiving therapeutic help has decreased. Part of this is due to a lack of mental health professionals available to support every child in need, lack of accessibility, and lack of financial means to receive care. Child life specialists are mental health professionals available to children and teens dealing with stress and anxiety. When seeking support for children, parents may wonder about the differences between a psychologist and a Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS). Both professionals play vital roles in children's mental health support, but their expertise and focus areas vary. Since mental health issues continue to rise, while therapeutic support services have decreased, this makes it all the more important that parents understand the many options available to their family when their child is needing support.

child life specialist supporting child with anxiety

Psychologists are mental health professionals trained to diagnose and treat emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues in individuals of all ages. When parents are concerned about their child's behavior, emotional well-being, or developmental milestones, consulting a psychologist is essential for a comprehensive diagnostic assessment. Psychologists can conduct evaluations to diagnose and address potential mental health or developmental concerns. They also provide interventions and treatment plans if a child's safety is at risk due to self-harm or harm to others. Additionally, psychologists are equipped to help children process and heal from traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse, through trauma-focused therapy.

On the other hand, Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) focus on providing psychosocial support to children and their families during challenging life events and medical experiences. Their primary focus is on helping children cope with the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of illness, injury, hospitalization, or medical procedures to mitigate trauma and increase resilience. Child life professionals have specific training in child development, medical terminology and anatomy, therapeutic play, and coping techniques to assist children in understanding and navigating medical experiences of their own or within their family. They play a crucial role in preparing children for procedures or surgeries, supporting them during and after hospital stays, and utilizing play and developmentally-appropriate education to reduce fear and anxiety. Additionally, CCLS professionals offer support and education to children with new chronic health diagnoses or a new diagnosis of a sibling or parent, helping them adjust to the condition or change in family dynamics. They also aid in coping with grief and loss by utilizing age-appropriate education about death, therapeutic play, and creative techniques to help children and teens express their feelings. Furthermore, child life specialists assist children and teens with various difficult life transitions including divorce, returning to school after the death of a loved one, potty training and developmental support, moving or a new sibling, and more.

Parents should seek a psychologist when their child needs diagnostic assessments, faces safety concerns emotionally and physically, or trauma-focused therapy techniques. Support from a CCLS is valuable when children need assistance with coping skills development, processing anxiety or stress, adjusting to new health conditions, managing grief and loss, preparing for a medical procedure, or parent coaching for difficult behavioral or developmental challenges. By understanding the unique roles and expertise of each professional, parents can make informed decisions to best support their child's well-being. Seeking support from a Certified Child Life Specialist can be a helpful and cost-effective mental health service for families! This is incredibly important for parents to know since so many children are eligible for mental health support from a CCLS before needing to meet with a psychologist, avoiding waitlists or being confined to certain providers based on insurance coverage.

Hearts Connected does not work with insurance companies, so we offer an affordable cash-pay price compared to other mental health professionals. We also have no waitlist, and are open 7 days a week. If your child is in need of mental health support, grief support, or support with a medical experience, please schedule a free consultation with us today. We will go over your child's specific needs and assess if one of our child life specialists can provide the specific support your child needs. If we feel your child needs support from a psychologist or other mental health professional, we refer your family to the appropriate providers. To schedule a free consult, click here.


NBCUniversal News Group. (2023, June 7). More kids getting anxiety medication without therapy: Research.


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