I am sure I'm not alone in finding this group of professionals particularly confusing. Both their names and their roles seem so similar that it's hard for outsiders like us to understand the difference between them. You may also feel that this is the group of professionals you are most reluctant to visit as being referred to someone with 'psych' in their title can raise fears that others doubt either our own sanity or that of our child.
But it's worth overcoming these fears if you can, as these professionals, like all the others, are there to help us. You'll find them particularly useful if your child has difficult behaviour or learning difficulties or if you or your child need help coping with stress. Many of these professionals work for the health service with referral via your GP or hospital doctor but you may also find some of them, especially counsellors, working privately or with local or national voluntary organisations to which you can refer yourself.
Don't worry too much about the exact difference between the titles as there is considerable overlap between their roles. Nearly all the professionals in this group have counselling skills and quite a few psychiatrists and psychologists are also trained psychotherapists. However, the psychiatrists are the only ones in this group who are doctors. That means they are the only ones who can prescribe drugs, although that certainly doesn't mean they automatically do so. As a result, you may prefer to see one of the others if you have strong feelings against drug-based treatment.
Psychologists have studied human behaviour and apply this knowledge of how we think and learn to help children with behavioural problems or emotional difficulties. In particular, they can use a variety of tests to find out about your child's intelligence, interests and personality - information that can help you and others working with him to understand his potential and choose the right way to help him achieve it.
These professionals, especially the psychologists, can teach you behaviour modification techniques to try to change and improve your child's behaviour. These are similar to methods used by many parents and can involve rewards for good behaviour or deterrents to bad behaviour (like temporary removal to a less interesting place). They may also help you understand the underlying reasons for the behaviour so you can deal with the problem at source.
Similarly they can help you understand the exact nature of your child's learning difficulties and suggest ways to overcome them. For instance, they may show you how to break tasks down into their component parts so your child can learn them one step at a time or how to simplify your instructions so he can understand them more easily.
Living with a disability can be stressful for your child, yourself and the rest of your family. Fortunately this group of professionals are particularly good at helping people cope with stress and its resulting emotional problems such as anxiety and depression. For young children, this help may be given through play therapy or painting but for older children and adults, it is most often given through talking.
If you opt for this type of help, you may find your first session disconcerting if you are used to professionals who talk all the time and pay little heed to your opinions. The pauses your counsellor or therapist leaves to allow you time to think and reply may feel, at first, like long embarrassing silences. Hopefully, once you have adjusted to this different way of working, you may benefit both from having someone to talk to and from having a better understanding of your feelings.
This is another situation where it is vital that you like the person trying to help you. Obviously you are likely to feel awkward at first but if you don't relax during the first couple of sessions or you feel she uses too much jargon or talks down to you, try someone else. There are many ways of giving this type of help so you may need to try several people before you find an approach that feels right for you.