Dr. Dawn on Becoming a Child Psychologist

Every once in a while, someone asks, “Did you always want to be a child psychologist?” or “What made you decide to become a child psychologist?”  To the first question I can easily answer, “No.” When I went off to college, I was dead-set on being a corporate attorney.  I liked the title.  The money seemed great and I had spent years in great debates with my parents, who seemed to agree that my calling was probably in the field of law.  I majored in business until the second semester of my junior year in college, at which point I changed my major to psychology much to my parents chagrin.  I remember my father saying “That means you’ll have to go to graduate school to do anything with that degree.”  Okay, call me crazy, but don’t people have to go to graduate school to be attorneys, too?

Anyway, I don’t recall any particular event that changed my mind.  I wasn’t a “troubled” kid.  I didn’t come from a broken home.  I didn’t spend years in therapy (though it probably would have assisted me through my teen years).  My grades were always good.  I had great friends. But I was always bothered by children who seemed to be hurting physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.  I wanted to understand them better and more than that, I wanted to help them.

Despite changing my major, I graduated from college a semester early and decided to find a job in the 9-month interim before entering graduate school.  I chose to apply for a job at a long-term residential children’s mental health facility.  The experience was life changing.  I can truly say it was the hardest job that I ever loved.  Day after day I was challenged by children and adolescents who could no longer be safely maintained in home or school environments.  Most of the kids had tragic histories, extremely difficult family situations, and a few teens were just one incident short of being thrown into jail.  They were aggressive, clever, unpredictable, impulsive, angry, strong-willed, sad, distrustful, and disappointed by people in their lives.  I was always amazed by how the consistent structure of the environment, daily group and individual therapy, appropriate behavioral interventions and proper medication could turn these kids back into happy, social, caring, funny and helpful individuals, who were actually a joy to be around. I was definitely up for the challenge.   

The road to becoming a child psychologist has not always been an easy one.  The training that goes into it is intense, to say the least.  There are years of difficult graduate courses, research obligations, and actual clinical experiences with patients.  I’ve had the opportunity to work in medical settings, psychiatric hospitals, school settings, home settings, residential care facilities, and research settings.  I’ve been shoved, bitten, spit at, had things thrown at me and been cussed out by kids who were hurting.   On the other hand, I’ve seen those very same kids blossom into wonderful, productive and happy adults with proper mental health treatment.  The reward in watching that amazing transformation in individual human beings is so rich that I cannot imagine myself ever doing anything else.   I love being a child psychologist!