Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Finding the Right Psychologist for Your Family

Looking out for the warning (and encouraging) signs

Filed under:
Assessment Counselling
Written by:
Melissa Yue BScH., MSc.
Registered Psychologist
Sept. 13, 2022

You have come to a point in your family’s journey where you feel that getting some outside support would benefit everyone.  Perhaps you heard from a trusted friend, or your child’s teacher, or family doctor that working with a psychologist is worth considering.

Okay, but where do you go from there?  A quick search online lists hundreds of options which leads you to think… “Are all psychologists the same?”

All psychologists are the same.

Psychologists specialize in certain areas of competencies or skills. It is very difficult for a psychologist to master them all, which is why you will want to ask them the right questions to figure out their areas of expertise.

First, it is important to note that psychologists are licensed and regulated. This is a fancy way of saying that there are some safeguards in place to make sure those who hold the title of “Registered Psychologist” have shown they have the proper training and qualifications to do their job. For more details on these qualifications, please refer to the College of Alberta Psychologist (CAP) website.

Second, psychologists can differ in the area in which they specialize. A more specific question to ask is “What type of psychologist specializes in the service my family needs?”

Let’s introduce you to the general roles and areas of specialization among the branches of psychology.

MA, MC, PhD or PsycD

Practice Settings: 
Varies depending on population

Counselling Psychologist

Areas of Expertise:

  • Individual or Group Therapy
  • Typically, they focus on the intervention side of psychology, unless they received additional training in assessment and clinical diagnosis. 
  • Often specialize in a certain approach or therapy (e.g., play, music, narrative, acceptance and commitment, cognitive behavioural, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, neurofeedback, mindfulness, etc. )
  • Often specialize within certain populations (e.g., children, couples, families, seniors) or in certain challenges (e.g., anxiety, depression, addictions, trauma)

MEd, MSc, PhD or PsycD

Practice Settings: 
Schools or private practice

Educational/School Psychologist

Areas of Expertise:

  • Psychoeducational assessments
  • Can also diagnose but often focuses on disorders that impact learning.
  • Intervention work largely focuses on skill development (e.g., academic, organizational, or social) or parent/teacher training.
  • Work with school-aged children and youth, as well as adults seeking further education. 
  • Further specialization in areas such as how to assess and diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder 

MSc, PhD or PsycD

Practice Settings:
 Private practice, hospitals, or other health facilities 

Clinical Psychologist

Areas of Expertise:

  • Assessment and diagnosis using a range of measures and tools
  • Also offer interventions for certain populations, typically specializing in treating a certain disorder (e.g., bipolar disorder, personality disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.).
  • Often focused in the health service sector and may provide mental health services to populations with certain chronic illnesses.

MSc, PhD or PsycD

Practice Settings:
Legal system (court system, law firms, correctional facilities)

Forensic Psychologist

Areas of Expertise:

  • Assessment and diagnosis to determine capacities (i.e., parent capacity, mental health assessments)
  • Focuses on diagnoses that may make an individual more vulnerable to confrontations with the law.

MSc, PhD or PsycD

Practice Settings
Private practice, hospitals, or other health facilities


Areas of Expertise:

  • Heavy focus on cognitive abilities and assessment.
  • Tend to work with populations that may have altered or changing brain functioning (i.e., brain injuries, certain genetic disorders, aging, etc.)
  • Looks for the connection between brain structure, development, and functioning.

It is essential to ask for clarity because some psychologists will seek additional training to specialize in other areas outside of their usual skill set. Ideally, they will be able to demonstrate that they have learned the adequate skills (i.e., through further education) and practice (i.e., through supervised training hours) so that you feel comfortable and confident in their ability to address your family’s concerns.

To help you narrow in on which psychologist might be best suited to meet your family’s needs, here are some warning signs and encouraging signs to watch for.  In addition, there are some examples below of how you can respectfully ask questions to help you better understand if a potential psychologist has the proper level of competency for the service you are interested in.

Warning Signs to Look For

Warning SIgn 1:  Mis-matched credentials 

It is very common for psychologists to pick up another skill as they progress. But if you happen to see a mismatch in their credentials, ask them to explain how they gained their other skills.

  • “I’m interested in counselling services. I’ve noticed you have a Master of Education. Where did you study further to learn your counselling techniques?  Did that training include additional supervised hours?”
  • “I’d like a psychoeducational assessment for my child. I see you have a background in neuropsychology.  What is your assessment style and what type of measures do you use?  Was your training specialized for school-aged children?”
  • “I see you have a Master of Counselling, did your training cover clinical diagnosis or assessment?  What did this training look like?”

Warning Sign 2:  The practitioner that does everything (a.k.a., The One-Stop-Shop)

The saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” points out how difficult it would be to learn a bunch of different skills.  It would take many years, and many clients, to become good at one skill, let alone several.

Although it is not impossible, it would be important to ask:

  • “How many clients have you done this with?”
  • “Was this skill/approach covered in your graduate degree or supervised training hours?”
  • “What type of extra training have you done to stay up-to-date in this skill?  How long ago was this training”

Warning Sign 3: Overly defensive or dismissive attitude 

If a psychologist is dismissive of your questions about their training, or if they become defensive, they may not recognize why your questions are important.  Remember that you are asking these questions in order to find the best professional to help you and your family.  It is the professional’s responsibility to answer your questions about the services they provide.  And if you are not happy with their responses, you can choose to work with someone else. Make sure you feel comfortable with their training and their responses to your questions.

Encouraging Signs to Look For

In addition to warning signs, it’s important to also look for encouraging signs that show a psychologist’s level of professionalism and their duty to provide the best care to you and your family.

Encouraging Sign 1: Open to questions and goes at your pace

A psychologist’s responsiveness to you is important.  Their goal should be to make sure you get your questions answered fully and to not rush you into anything you do not feel comfortable with.  A sign of maturity and professionalism is that they are not threatened by questions about their training or the service they are offering. An additional resource written by the Learning Disabilities and ADHD Network is also linked down below to help brainstorm other great questions to ask.

Encouraging Sign 2: Has a support team to consult with if need be

Nobody knows everything and there are going to be times when a psychologist may get stuck or require consultation with another professional in order to provide you with the best possible care.  Asking about who the psychologist can turn to for advice on more challenging client cases or situations gives you access to more resources.  One of the perks of large groups of psychologists (or psychologists-in-training) is that there are more people to consult with if a client presents with a unique challenge, concern, or response to intervention. Smaller practices can still have access to other psychologists, but you may want to ask as it is not as obvious.   The key is that your psychologist has someone to consult with if the need arises.

Encouraging Sign 3: Prioritizes your family even if it means them not taking you/your family as a client

The fit between a client and a psychologist is one of the best predictors of positive outcomes.  Sometimes, that requires an honest look at how well a psychologist’s skill set matches a client’s needs.  And if need be, they can refer you to someone who may be a better match for the services you require.  For example, if you are wondering if your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder, the psychologist you originally contacted may refer you to another psychologist who has specialized training in this area.

Encouraging Sign 4: Seeks your feedback

At the end of the day, you want a psychologist who is not afraid of feedback and who is open to checking in with you regularly on their progress.  Better yet, a great sign is if they keep the lines of communication open throughout the whole process by asking you to share any concerns you are having along the way.  By giving them this feedback, they will be able to better adjust to your family’s needs and continue to offer you meaningful psychological services. 

Although this is not a complete list, these signs and questions can help you figure out if a psychologist is a good match for you.  In addition to picking a psychologist whose skills match your needs, you will also want to ask about the cost of their services and how long they expect the services to last in order to reach your goal.  

Would you like more ideas on finding the right mental health professional? Check out these resources:



 Worried about a psychologist’s level of competency?

 Help protect other people looking for a similar service by submitting a concern to the College of Alberta Psychologists.  They will do the investigation for you as to whether or not a psychologist is qualified to offer a certain service.