teen with psychiatrist

Teen Psychiatrist, Adolescent Psychiatrist: Specialized Support for Youth Mental Health

When you’re the parent of a teenager with mental health issues and they receive a diagnosis for a clinical mental health disorder, the first thing you do – most likely – is get online and search for a teen psychiatrist or an adolescent psychiatrist.

That’s a good choice, because the most important thing you can do for your teen is find high-quality, evidence-based treatment. In most cases, a mental health disorder doesn’t go into remission or resolve on its own. It takes professional treatment and care, willingness and engagement from the teen or adolescent, and the support and commitment of the family.

At a treatment center that specializes in adolescent mental health, you’ll see clinicians with titles you recognize, but you may not know what the titles mean or what role each plays in supporting your teen. Clinical teams at teen treatment centers may include social workers, counselors, psychologists, therapists, nurses, and psychiatrists.

After their names, you see letters like LCSW, LMFT, Psy.D., MD, and others. You soon learn these stand for licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed married and family therapist (LMFT), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), and medical doctor (MD).

While all of these clinicians play a crucial role in the health and well-being of your teen, participate in their treatment, and work to help them heal and grow, this article will focus on one group of clinicians in particular: those with “MD” after their name, called psychiatrists.

Among the clinicians we mention above, psychiatrists are required to complete the most training and education in order to practice their specialty without supervision. That’s why psychiatrists at mental health treatment centers often have titles like Medical Director: their extensive training prepares them for not only hands-on clinical work, but also for supervising and supporting therapists, counselors, and other clinicians in training.

Why Support from a Teen Psychiatrist or Adolescent Psychiatrist Matters

One of the first things to understand is that child and adolescent psychiatrists are different from social workers, counselors, and therapists, in one significant way:

They’re physicians, and therefore, are required to complete a four-year medical school, a general residency in psychiatry, and a specialized residency in child and adolescent psychiatry under the supervision of an experience child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Among other things, this means a psychiatrist can prescribe medication and offer medication management services, while therapists, counselors, and psychologists cannot. This may lead you to ask another question:

Why does it matter that they’re physicians and can prescribe medication?

That’s a good question, with an equally good answer. We can sum up why it matters with three basic reasons:

  1. They have extensive medical training in biology, anatomy, physiology, and chemistry, which means they understand – on a scientific level – how medications affect the body and brain.
  2. Since they’re physicians, they’re trained to communicate with other physicians on the critical details related to medical care. This means they can talk to your primary care provider, physicians involved in past treatment – medical or psychiatric – and understand how past treatment may impact present circumstances.
  3. This reason may be too obvious, based on what say above, but it’s big. If the diagnosis your teenager receives – and a full assessment – indicates medication as a standard of care, then a psychiatrist can prescribe it immediately, and you and your family don’t have to make and wait for an appointment with yet another specialist.

The takeaway from all this is that a teen psychiatrist or adolescent psychiatrist has extensive training in and an advanced understanding of the various biological, psychological, and social factors that can impact the mental health of your teenager.

Next, let’s take a look at some of the specialty training psychiatrists who specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry receive.

What Does a Teen Psychiatrist or Adolescent Psychiatrist Learn?

After their basic medical training and a residency in general psychiatry or its equivalent, a teen psychiatrist or adolescent psychiatrist in training takes the nest step. They focus on learning everything they can about child and adolescent development and how that impacts mental health, mental health treatment, and mental health disorders. They also immerse themselves – under direct supervision of experienced physicians – in everything related to understanding and treating the mental health disorders most common to adolescents, and the difference between treating adults and treating teens.

The subjects child and adolescent psychiatrists cover during training include, but are not limited to:

  • Child and Adolescent Development
  • Family Systems Theory
  • Assessing and diagnosing mental health disorders in children and adolescents
  • Creating a healthy treatment alliance with a child or teen
  • Adapting standard treatments designed for adults to meet the specific needs of children and teens
  • How to include/benefits of including family members in treatment
  • How to leverage new technologies – the internet, screen devices, and others – that teens regularly use to support the treatment process

The mental health disorders child and adolescent psychiatrists cover during training include, but are not limited to:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)/Trauma-related disorders
  • Attachment disorders

In addition, specialists in child and adolescent psychiatry can help youth and teens with social skills issues, substance use disorder (SUD), co-occurring mental health disorders and SUD, early onset thought, personality, and psychotic spectrum disorders, suicidal behavior, non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), school refusal, and behavioral issues.

What Does Specializing in Adolescent Mental Health Really Mean?

For a psychiatrist, it first means total immersion in all the book learning related to child, teen, and adolescent mental health. That takes years. During med school, there’s a solid mix of theoretical and practical, hands-on learning. When med school ends, book-learning and theory still matter and happen, but the focus shifts to the brass tacks of the actual practice of medicine.

In adolescent psychiatry, this means the focus shifts to direct, in-person treatment and support of teenagers with mental health disorders. When we made the list of disorders above, we should have written “for children and adolescents,’ or, more specifically, “for adolescents.” That’s an important distinction, because most parents understand that in most cases, there’s an enormous difference between what will work with and for an eight-year-old compared to a 16-year-old.

The hands-on experience in residencies after official med school teaches psychiatrists in training how to adapt treatment to the needs of teenagers. They learn under the direct supervision of an experienced teen psychiatrist.

Doctors who train other doctors often have decades of practical experience they can pass on to the physicians they train.

They help psychiatrists in training with aspects of practicing psychiatry that can be written down in books, but benefit most from direct experience, contact with patients, and on the job experience. Experienced mentors teach trainees how to:

  • Approach teens with empathy and compassion
  • Establish and develop trust
  • Talk to teens in a relatable manner, without being preachy, condescending, or acting as the world’s greatest expert on all things mental health
    • Although their job is clearly to be the expert, teens often find it easier to connect with adults who don’t act like one
  • Form a positive therapeutic treatment alliance with teens
  • Adapt one-on-one psychotherapeutic techniques for adolescent patients, such as:
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
    • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
    • Motivational interviewing (MI)
    • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
  • Adapt group therapy for adolescents, to help them learn:
    • Coping skills
    • Symptom management
    • Stress tolerance
    • Emotional processing
  • Tailor family therapy for families with teens:
    • Communication skills
    • Boundary setting
    • Conflict resolution

While therapists often facilitate group and family therapy sessions, psychiatrists may supervise this type of group therapy as well and add their extensive knowledge and experience to this component of the treatment plan.

In essence, what happens during the later stages of training for a teen psychiatrist or adolescent psychiatrist is this:

Under the supervision of an experienced mentor, they learn what works for teens for each type of treatment modality and each specific diagnosis.

That’s one reason why psychiatrists often take leadership roles in teen treatment centers. While therapists and counselors have the training and experience to support and treat teens with serious and complex mental health disorders, a psychiatrist has additional levels of training that allow them to ensure that treatment delivered by therapists and counselors is both appropriate and effective.

We’ll end this article with a review of training required to become a psychiatrist who specializes in treating teenagers/adolescents.

What Does it Take to Become a Teen or Adolescent Psychiatrist?

Here’s an overview of the training it takes to become a psychiatrist. We collected this information in an article published by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry called “What is Child and Adolescent Psychiatry?”, and from the curricula posted online by John’s Hopkins Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Duke Medical School, and UCLA Medical School.

Education and Training Required to Become a Psychiatrist

Step 1: College

Four years at the bachelor’s degree level

During this phase, students complete the basic coursework required to apply to medical school. While the exact requirements vary by the medical school a student applies to, most require the following:

  • 2 semesters each of lab sciences:
    • Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry
  • 2 semesters of math:
    • Calculus, Statistics
  • Standard coursework in Humanities and Social Sciences

Step 2: Medical School

Four years of basic medical training

During this phase, students engage in an immersive study of everything required to become a physician. While the details vary by institution, most medical schools follow this general pattern:

First Year. Clinician Prep and Foundations of Medical Science
  • Foundational science classes, Intro to clinical practices, Social components of Clinical Practice, Medical Ethics, Related topics
Second Year: Continuing Clinical and Science Education and Exam Prep
Third Year. Continuing Course Work and Clerkships: Training Directly Under Physicians in Real Clinical Situations.

Students continue coursework, but most of this phase of training involves following and observing experience physicians in real-life situations to learn about what offering care in core medical areas is really like:

  • Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, General Medicine, Neurology, Obstetrics & Gynecology, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Surgery

Third year students take course work that augments their clinical clerkships, builds on the foundational science studied in their first year, and prepares them for more advanced study.

Fourth Year. Continuing Clerkships, Continuing Science Education, Continuing Medical Education

Students continue coursework and clinical clerkships, which become more specialized as the student decides which sub-specialty to pursue during their residencies. In the final year, students prepare for Step 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination, which is required for graduation. In addition, students engage in what most schools call a Capstone rotation or clerkship, which, in most cases, directly prepares them for their specialty residencies.

Step 3: Residency. Immersive Training in Specialty of Choice

During this phase of training, medical students who choose psychiatry participate in three years of residency in medicine, neurology, and general psychiatry for adults. Residents practice medicine in their specialty under the supervision of a licensed physician in that specialty. Students who want to become child/adolescent psychiatrists spend two additional years of specialized training in psychiatry with children, adolescents, and families.

How to Find a Teen Psychiatrist or Adolescent Psychiatrist: Online Resources for Families