What is Pediatric Psychology?
Pediatric psychology is my primary area of interest, but it is one that is not generally well known. Many people say "pediatric psychology" when they mean "child psychology," but really pediatric psychology is a subspecialty within the field of child psychology. Pediatric psychology is the specialty of working with youth (and their families) who have medical conditions. It's an area with a lot of complexities, and I want to highlight some of those here.
As all of you can probably imagine—and may experience yourselves—having one or more medical conditions can add a lot of burden to the life of a person. Some of these burdens are obvious, such as having to handle symptoms and a treatment regimen, but there are other things which are difficult as well. For example, some kids miss a lot of school, which can hurt academic performance, peer relationships, and social development. There may be stigma associated with a diagnosis, which can also have an impact on interpersonal relationships.
Not only do these burdens affect the youth with the medical condition(s), but they also have an impact on the family. Parents often need to be involved in medication management. Siblings sometimes have difficulty handling the differences in attention given to the ill sibling versus themselves (think My Sister's Keeper, though usually less intense). Cognitive impairments can mean that teachers need to accommodate the needs of the child. Overall, the medical condition(s) has an influence on everyone within the child's social circle.
While these social pieces are certainly important, they are only one component of what pediatric psychology addresses. Along with the social piece, there is the understanding of the interplay between the medical/biological aspects of the medical condition(s) and how those are likely to affect psychosocial functioning. For example, pediatric psychology is interested in knowing how certain treatments (e.g., anti-epileptic medications) may affect the child in ways that need to be addressed clinically (e.g., behavioral changes in the child). Clinically, we then need to work with families to bridge the gap between the medical realities of their situation and their lived experiences with the child and his/her medical condition(s).
Finally, pediatric psychologists commonly have the dual role of educators and troubleshooters. Medical conditions can be complicated, as can their treatments, which can very easily become overwhelming for families. One of our main tasks is to make sure youth and their families understand the condition(s) the child has, how the treatments will be beneficial, what complications may arise, and how to work around any challenges. Following a treatment regimen properly is crucial for improving the medical condition(s) of the child, and doing so also helps to reduce stress and improve psychosocial functioning.
These are just some of the broad tasks that pediatric psychology examines and addresses. After talking with many undergraduate students, it seems like many students have interests in these areas without knowing that pediatric psychology is a career option. Families also express a lot of needs in the areas that pediatric psychologists address without necessarily knowing that there are professionals who can help.
Students, have questions about how to go down the path of becoming a pediatric psychologist? Families, have questions about how pediatric psychologists can help you? Let me know in the comments, and I'll do my best to provide answers!