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Being a young person is a time marked by significant physical, psychological, and emotional changes, which can sometimes lead to confusion, distress, and the emergence of mental health issues. According to a 2018-2019 survey from the CDC, more than one in three adolescents have persistently sad or hopeless feelings, and nearly one in five has seriously considered suicide. It is critical to offer youth struggling with their emotions a safe space for open discussion and provide resources and strategies for coping and fostering resilience, which is precisely what youth counselors do.
Youth counselors, also often called adolescent counselors, provide guidance, support, and mentorship to young people navigating the complexities and challenges of life. They work closely working with youth, assisting them in comprehending their emotions, resolving conflicts, and realizing their full potential. While they often work with youth one-on-one, they may hold group sessions or provide therapy in an inpatient setting.
At a minimum, a youth counselor who is providing therapeutic care must hold a master’s degree in counseling and a license to practice in their state. Licensed youth counselors may also make diagnoses, provide treatment plans, and discharge clients from care. Youth counselors who work more as mentors or guides may only need a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, counseling, or a related field. However, without a license, the type of services and treatment youth counselors can provide is significantly limited.
Becoming a youth counselor takes time and dedication, but this can be a rewarding career for those interested in helping youth. Read on to learn what it takes to become a youth counselor, the education required, licensure steps, including supervised work hours, and potential earnings.
How to Become a Youth Counselor
The first step towards becoming a youth counselor is completing the necessary education. At a minimum, youth counselors must have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a field such as psychology, social work, counseling, or even education. These majors provide a solid foundation in understanding human behavior, development, and mental health, which are crucial in youth counseling. Depending on career aspirations, most youth counselors must complete a master’s degree in counseling or a related field. A master’s degree will allow a counselor to pursue licensure and eventually provide therapeutic care to their clients.
In addition to obtaining a relevant degree, practical experience plays a pivotal role in becoming a competent youth counselor. Field placements, internships, or volunteering can provide invaluable real-world experience working with young people. Aspiring youth counselors can complete work experience independently or as part of their degree program. These hands-on experiences allow them to apply the theories and skills they have learned in school, understand the multifaceted issues the youth face, and develop their counseling style. Supervised work experience is often a requirement for licensure.
Lastly, getting licensed is typically the final step for most youth counselors. Licensing requirements vary widely by state, so candidates must research the specific requirements in their area. More details can be found in the licensing section below.
Education & Certification of a Youth Counselor
There are several options for pursuing education to become a youth counselor.
The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) offers a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Specialist in Child and Adolescent Counseling certification for counselors who want to demonstrate their specific knowledge and expertise in providing counseling services to children and adolescents. It also demonstrates competency in addressing the unique needs of young individuals, including developmental, emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues.
To earn this certification, counselors must complete at least 90 hours of professional development in child and adolescent counseling, 100 hours of face-to-face counseling, and a minimum of 10 hours of specialist supervision by a licensed mental health professional with expertise in this area. Once the requirements are met, candidates can submit their application, the application fee, and a signed code of ethics. Once all the documentation has been processed, they are awarded the certification.
Here are some education options for aspiring youth or adolescent counselors.
Northwestern University’s Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies offers an online master’s of arts in counseling degree. This program is designed to train professionals to be competent clinical mental health counselors ready to assist children and adults alike.
Offering flexibility, the program can be undertaken as an accelerated full-time course over six quarters or pursued on a regular full-time or part-time basis. The interactive online classes provide an opportunity to engage with fellow students, academics, and experienced counselors.
Northwestern faculty teaches all courses consisting of 24 graduate-level subjects, an in-person practicum of 200 hours, an internship lasting 600 hours, and in-person immersion events. This program offers a child and adolescent specialization, which focuses on adapting your therapeutic approach to cater to the requirements of young individuals dealing with mental health issues.
- Location: Chicago, IL
- Accreditation: Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Expected Time to Completion: Two and half years
- Estimated Tuition: $5,387 for three credits
Arcadia University offers a master’s of arts in counseling program. Graduates of this program are adept at providing various mental health services in diverse environments, including hospitals, private practices, and educational institutions. This program equips students with the knowledge and skills to become Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC) in Pennsylvania, emphasizing multicultural and evidence-based counseling practices. Students can choose from one of seven specialized counseling concentrations, including child and family therapy.
Thoughtfully tailored to meet individual student’s pace, this program includes an accelerated option of just 21 months. The curriculum is uniquely designed to embed four key philosophies: multicultural competence, evidence-based practice, self-care, and career development. The relatively small program size is by design and allows for intensive advising and mentoring to help students achieve their unique career goals.
- Location: Glenside, PA
- Accreditation: Masters in Psychology and Accreditation Council (MPCAC)
- Expected Time to Completion: 21 months minimum
- Estimated Tuition: $835 per credit
Supervised Hour Requirements for a Youth Counselor
In every state, becoming a licensed youth counselor requires a certain number of supervised clinical hours. This typically means directly working with youth under the supervision of a licensed professional.
While the exact number of hours can vary significantly depending on specific state regulations, it often falls within the range of 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised experience. This ensures that youth counselors gain ample hands-on practice in their field, dealing with various real-world scenarios and complexities, with the support they need to excel. It’s an opportunity to refine their counseling skills, learn from seasoned professionals, and receive feedback on their counseling approach. These hours usually need to be fulfilled after obtaining a master’s degree and must be documented and verified by the supervising professional.
Licensure of a Youth Counselor
Every state requires that youth counselors who practice as licensed mental health counselors and are diagnosing, writing treatment plans, providing psychotherapy services, or discharging patients must be licensed. Youth counselors who do not provide those services but work in a coaching, support, or basic supervisory capacity may not need a license. Professionals should contact their local licensing board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications to perform their job duties.
Licensing requirements will vary by state. Most states have a stair-step process that requires licensure as an associate, assistant, intern, or provisional counselor. While holding this license, counselors will complete the required supervised work hours to earn an unrestricted license. Counselors in this category work under a more senior counselor’s supervision who reviews their caseload and helps them develop their counseling skills.
After completing the required supervised hours, counselors can apply for an unrestricted license and practice independently. Most states require counselors to pass a national exam as well, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) or Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). The timing of this exam varies by state and can happen before initial licensure or prior to an unrestricted license.
For example, Washington issues Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate (LMHCA) licenses.
Requirements for an LMHCA license include:
- A completed application, including a social security number and a National Provider Identifier Number (NPI)
- A $35 application fee
- A master’s or doctorate in counseling from a regionally accredited institution. Graduates of CACREP programs will receive credit for 500 hours of post-graduate work experience and 50 hours of supervision. The program must include a practicum or internship
- A Declaration Working Toward Licensure
- Four hours of HIV/AIDS continuing education
To be licensed as an LMHC, candidates must already hold an LMHCA as well as:
- Complete an application including a social security number and a National Provider Identifier Number (NPI)
- Pay $191 application fee
- Pass the NCE or NCMHCE
- Provide proof of 36 hours of continuing education, of which six hours must be in professional ethics
- Complete four hours of HIV/AIDS continuing education
- Complete 3,000 hours and 36 months of post-graduate supervised work experience. Of those, 1,200 hours must be in direct client contact, and 100 hours must be supervised. Graduates of CACREP programs will receive credit for 500 hours of post-graduate work experience and 50 hours of supervision.
Youth Counselor Licensure Renewal Requirements
Renewal requirements for youth counselor licensing will also vary by state. Typically, licensed counselors must complete continuing education and pay an application fee. In some states, a new background check may be required.
For example, in Washington, licenses must be renewed annually, costing $25 for associate counselors and $106 for LMHCs. LMHCs must also complete 36 continuing education hours every two years, of which six of those hours must be in ethics.
What Do Youth Counselors Do?
Youth counselors work in a broad array of settings that serve the needs of young people. These can include schools, community organizations and social service agencies, residential treatment centers, and juvenile correctional facilities, or in private practice, offering specialized services to children and adolescents.
- Conducting assessments to determine clients’ emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs.
- Delivering one-on-one counseling sessions to youths dealing with issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and substance abuse.
- Facilitating group counseling sessions to promote peer support and shared understanding.
- Assisting in crisis intervention, providing immediate support in urgent situations.
- Collaborating with other professionals such as teachers, parents, and social workers to develop comprehensive care plans.
- Advocating for clients, supporting them in their journey towards healthier and more fulfilling lives.
- Documenting and maintaining thorough records of counseling sessions and client progress.
- Participating in continuing professional development and training programs to stay updated with the latest counseling techniques and theories.
- Providing guidance and resources to clients’ families to help them understand and support their loved ones better.
How Much Do Youth Counselors Make?
Wages for youth counselors can vary significantly depending on the place of employment and whether or not a youth counselor is licensed. Here are some wage statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2022 for occupations that may include youth counselors—the latest data available as of December 2023.
- Number employed in the U.S.: 2,313,620
- Average annual salary (mean): $55,760
- 10th percentile: $32,360
- 25th percentile: $38,840
- 50th percentile (median): $49,380
- 75th percentile: $64,750
- 90th percentile: $83,600
- Number employed in the U.S.: 344,970
- Average annual salary (mean): $56,230
- 10th percentile: $34,580
- 25th percentile: $39,810
- 50th percentile (median): $49,710
- 75th percentile: $64,400
- 90th percentile: $82,710
- Number employed in the U.S.: 37,270
- Average annual salary (mean): $49,770
- 10th percentile: $31,930
- 25th percentile: $36,730
- 50th percentile (median): $43,390
- 75th percentile: $52,770
- 90th percentile: $75,340
Youth Counselor Professional Associations & Resources
- American Counseling Association (ACA)
- American School Counselor Association (ASCA)
- National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
- Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling (ACAC)
- Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (SAHM)
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- American Association of Suicidology (AAS)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- The International Association for Counselling (IAC)
- Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling