Juvenile Counseling — How To Become a Youth Counselor

Two women, a therapist and a young girl talking.

For many counseling professionals, their career is a calling rather than just a job. You may find youth counseling in particular to be a rewarding and challenging line of work. It enables you to help young people recover from trauma, overcome obstacles and experience positive outcomes. If you feel called to make a positive difference in the lives of the children and adolescents in your community, then you should consider embarking on the process of how to become a youth counselor.

Below, you can learn more about youth counseling and the general career pathway.

In This Article:

Career Options for Youth Counselors

Youth counselors can work in a variety of settings, including private practice. Parents and legal guardians may bring youths into the counseling office of their own accord or they may be referred there by a social service agency.

For youth counselors who work directly for social service agencies, they often work closely with personnel in the court system. They may also work within juvenile detention facilities, group homes for troubled youths and nonprofit organizations dedicated to children’s welfare. Another area where youth counselors work is within the school systems. There, they support children working through various types of issues, including bullying and peer pressure.

What Does a Youth Counselor Do?

Children and adolescents — particularly those from troubled homes — may face a wide variety of challenges. Emotional and behavioral problems can stem from poverty, substance abuse and parental neglect, abuse and abandonment. Young people may struggle with homelessness, death in the family and a lack of positive influences in their lives.

When a child or teen struggles with significant adversity, they become more likely to develop mental and behavioral health disorders that persist into adulthood. Such youths are at a higher risk of suicidal ideation, social dysfunction, criminal behavior and substance abuse.1

Skilled counseling can act as a safety net and a lifeline to these troubled youths. A youth counselor works closely with at-risk kids, building a strong rapport and letting them know they are not facing their challenges alone. Counselors can help troubled kids in the following ways:

  • Empowering children to give voice to their feelings
  • Helping them understand and manage socioemotional and behavioral disorders
  • Teaching skills and strategies for coping with life changes and difficult situations
  • Helping kids trade in negative thought patterns for positive, productive ones

In short, a juvenile counselor can help at-risk children get through difficult times and get on track toward a better future.

How To Be a Youth Counselor: A Look at the Requirements

If you feel called to work with troubled youth, the first step in the process of how to become a youth counselor is to research the requirements for the state in which you plan to work. Every state establishes its own particular requirements, some of which are stricter than others. The typical youth counselor requirements pertain to academic credentials and state licensure.

States may enact stricter requirements for juvenile counselors who wish to work in private or clinical practice. In addition, aspiring counselors can generally expect that they will need to pass a background check. Having a criminal history may not automatically prevent a person from becoming a counselor, although violent convictions will.

Some counseling jobs are civil service positions. In order to be considered for these positions, you will need to pass a civil service examination. Depending on the geographical jurisdiction, some civil service exams may be offered only once or twice per year — you should check the test dates as soon as possible so you can plan accordingly.

Earning Your Undergraduate Counseling Degree

Nearly all behavioral health counselors are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Look for a degree in counseling or behavioral health science. It is ideal to choose a degree that offers a specialization option that emphasizes childhood and adolescent counseling, although not every college will offer this.

If your school does not offer a specialization option in childhood and adolescent disorders, you may want to use your electives to take courses in childhood development and similar subjects. Some elective options include communications, criminal justice, sociology and minority studies. If you plan to establish your own counseling practice, you may want to declare a minor in a business subject, such as entrepreneurial studies.

Aside from your electives and classes for your minor, if applicable, you can expect to take a deep dive into human development, abnormal psychology and counseling theories. You will be taught the professional ethics of the counseling field and explore issues pertaining to cultural and social diversity. The curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but in general, it may include any of the following topics:

  • Childhood and adolescent disorders, including anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and conduct disorders
  • Childhood trauma and the effects of traumatic experiences with a look at physical, emotional, cognitive and sociological consequences
  • Family dynamics and systems, including parenting styles, cultural influences and generational patterns
  • Evidence-based research and documentation styles in the behavioral health field
  • Physical, cognitive and socioemotional development across the lifespan

Depending on your school, you may be required to complete a capstone project in your senior year. Your capstone project will be the culmination of your academic achievements.

Do You Need a Graduate Degree?

There are entry-level, non-clinical behavioral health counseling positions and some state licensure boards that do not require a graduate degree. However, if you do plan to go into clinical counseling, you will need to earn a graduate degree. Be sure to carefully research the requirements for the state where you would like to work before deciding whether you need to pursue an advanced degree. If you do need to enroll in graduate school, you may decide to gain some experience as an entry-level counselor first or head straight into a master’s degree program after graduating with your bachelor’s.

Your state may have specific requirements regarding the type of graduate degree you should earn. Other states may be more flexible. For example, you might decide to earn a master’s in social work or counseling with an emphasis on youth populations.

As part of your master’s degree program, it is likely that you will need to complete a certain number of practicum hours or clinical internship experience. This allows you to learn through practice under the close supervision of a licensed counselor or social worker. These hours may also count toward a clinical experience requirement established by your state licensure board.

In addition to your coursework on the theories and practice of youth counseling, you can generally expect to complete a master’s thesis (although this is not necessarily required by all degree programs). A master’s thesis is an in-depth research project culminating in a paper that is typically 40 to 80 pages long. Unlike a doctoral dissertation, a master’s thesis does not require you to conduct your own original research.

Acquiring State Licensure for Counselors

The last step in becoming a youth counselor is to acquire your professional license, if needed. You may be able to take the licensing exam more than once if you do not pass it the first time. Register for your test as early as possible so you will know how long you have to prepare for it. You should plan on setting aside some time every day to review study materials.

Maintaining Your Professional License

When you receive your counseling license, if applicable, you should make a note of when it will expire. The length of time before a counseling license expires depends on the state or certifying body.

One typical licensure renewal requirement is ongoing professional development. It is easiest to meet this requirement by completing a few continuing education (CE) hours each year, rather than trying to complete all of them during the year when your license is up for renewal. You will also likely need to pay a fee to renew your license.

Important Skills and Characteristics of Youth Counselors

While you are working toward your counseling degree and professional license, you can also work on developing the skills and characteristics needed to become a youth counselor. These include the following:

  • Verbal and written communication skills
  • Empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Advocacy skills
  • Professional ethics
  • Sound decision-making abilities

Youth counselors must also be emotionally resilient. They often work with clients who have experienced significant trauma and are dealing with incredibly challenging circumstances, such as child abuse and neglect. In order to avoid professional burnout, youth counselors must themselves be emotionally stable and resilient.

What Is the Job Outlook for Counseling Professionals?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the agency responsible for tracking employment data and developing job outlook projections. Although the BLS does not track data for juvenile counselors specifically, it does offer information on all types of behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in general.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors to increase by approximately 22% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than average. This indicates employers may hire about 43,600 new counselors each year from 2021 through 2031.2

The need for qualified counselors is expected to rise because of the following factors:2

  • Local and state law enforcement agencies are increasingly seeking substance abuse treatment or behavioral health counseling for offenders, rather than imposing periods of incarceration in jails or juvenile detention facilities.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in mental health problems for children and adults alike, resulting in increased need for qualified counselors.
  • Thousands of behavioral health counselors across the country are expected to either retire or transfer to new careers in the coming decade.

You can begin the process of becoming a youth counselor by earning your counseling degree from Grand Canyon University (GCU). The Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science with an Emphasis in Childhood and Adolescence Disorders degree program can provide you with the opportunity to pursue a position as a member of a clinical care team in a variety of behavioral health settings. Complete the form on this page to begin planning your future at GCU.


1 BMJ. (2020, October 28). Adversity in childhood is linked to mental and physical health throughout life. The BMJ. Retrieved June 8, 2023.

2 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors, retrieved May 11, 2023.

Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on July 25, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.