EMDR has been substantially researched and proven to be helpful for individuals who feel stuck in emotionally charged patterns of re-experiencing past traumatic events, especially when faced with triggers by anything that looks, smells, sounds, or feels like the original event. Children and adolescents, in particular, have been shown to benefit from EMDR due to its less invasive sequentially step-based process. Research indicates that children even as young as 3 years old have been able to experience relief from previously disturbing symptoms with this treatment modality.
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is defined as an evidence-based psychotherapy treatment procedure for resolving and healing trauma, emotional difficulties, and distressing life experiences. EMDR trained therapists collaboratively work with children through the eight-stage model to focus on a troubling memory and the attached negative thoughts patterns, and then integrate rapid sets of bilateral stimulation with more healthy and adaptive thoughts patterns to work through and process so that it is no longer distressing in the present. To qualify for treatment, a child does not have to endure severe trauma or be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Any event or experience that may be difficult to understand, cope with, or even feel overwhelming can be a candidate for EMDR with children.
Our brains perform as information centers; as we go through our day, our brain works to identify, label, and process our events from the right side of the brain, the emotion side, to the left side of the brain, the reasoning side. However, distressing or frustrating experiences can cause the brain to get too overwhelmed, and the memory can become “stuck” in emotions. When we come into contact with something that reminds us of this stuck memory, we can feel as if it is happening to us all over again! For children, this can look like out-of-proportionate emotional responses, like tantrums, nightmares, or even complete avoidance. EMDR reactivates the stuck memory through bilateral stimulation, moving your eyes from side to side or alternating marching your feet in place, to help unstick and push through the troubling memory to the reasoning left side of the brain. With the help of an EMDR trained therapist, you can teach your brain to process your experiences into past memories so that they no longer feel upsetting, scary, or painful.
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What Issues Can EMDR Address?
EMDR helps children strengthen their resiliency and overcome negative self-perceptions and thought patterns by replacing and reprocessing with positive and adaptive thoughts. Essentially, EMDR helps children process through the yucky memories and encourages them to identify strengths and supports to make room for good feelings! Many children will encounter distressing experiences as they grow to understand the world around them, so it is important to take notice of the frequency and intensity of their emotional reactions to specific triggers to determine if EMDR could be a beneficial treatment. Below are 9 issues that EMDR addresses and heals.
- Separation Anxiety
- Divorce or Family Separation
- New Siblings/Family Members
- Depression/Low Self-Esteem
- Natural Disasters/Pandemic
9 Issues EMDR Can Help Children With
Many young children face difficulty separating from their parents, especially when starting school or daycare. They may fear that their caregivers will never return, that they are bad and being punished, or that they will be stuck in school forever. EMDR helps children identify their negative thoughts, like “I’m unlovable,” or “I will never go home,” and replace them with more positive and adaptive thoughts, like “I can go home after school,” and “my parents love me and want me to be safe.”
In most cases, children exhibit impulsive behaviors or temper tantrums because they feel out of control or too overwhelmed and unable to express their experiences verbally. For a child with a stuck distressing memory, tantrums are their coping responses when feeling re-triggered. With EMDR, children will gain more tools of expression, like body scans and scaling, and will be able to reframe their past pains into healthier present perspectives such as, “I can help myself,” “it’s over,” or “I am safe now.”
Grief and Loss
Children’s experience of grief and loss may look like amplified or inhibited emotional reactions due to their limited knowledge of mortality and the contradictory visuals they receive from media that portray death as temporary or even reversible. It can be challenging for children to understand and accept that the person they love is not coming back. EMDR can help children feel relief from suffering and push through the natural process towards acceptance of death with a refocus on the positives, “I hold a lot of good memories with them,” or “I will always love them.”
Divorce or Family Separation
Children who experience a divorce of caregivers or a family separation may not have the social or developmental skills to compartmentalize themselves out of the reasoning for the split and may internalize and blame themselves. Children can also endure a loss of their routines with changes of households or losing a caretaker and may not feel that they have the tools to adapt to a new lifestyle. Any difficulty in transitions, sleeping, eating, or social relationships may indicate that they are struggling with the family changes. EMDR can help children of divorce and family separation by strengthening their self-soothing and emotional regulation skills and encouraging them to apply appropriate reasoning to detach themselves from their caregiver’s separation.
New Siblings/Family Members
As just previously mentioned, children may have a hard time adapting to new routines, and changes in the household dynamics. Just like a subtraction of a member can cause dysregulation, an additional member can have a similar effect. In particular, a new sibling could be a very anxiety-provoking experience for a child, especially if they are an only child. They may experience worries of “what ifs,” “what if my parents won’t want to play with me anymore?” “What if the new baby is better than me?” “What if I have to give all my toys away?” EMDR can help children refocus on the strengths of their own relationships in the family unit to build resiliency and find more adaptive thoughts of, “I can have someone to play with,” and “my parents will always love me too.”
Much like impulsivity and tantrums, children primarily develop anxious thoughts and behaviors due to feeling out of control, overwhelmed, or unsafe. A child’s outward display of anxiety can look like recurring nightmares of the event, skin or lip picking, panic attacks, or even avoidance of distressing events such as becoming emotionally dysregulated when going into the car or on a bike if they experienced a crash or accident. EMDR can help alleviate these anxiety behaviors by building their resiliency with healthier coping skills and language to express their worries.
Children who suffer from depression may find themselves lost, unworthy, or even unlovable. These negative self-beliefs impact the child’s mental health and cause them to feel and behave adversely. EMDR helps children work through the genesis of their negative self-talk, such as: “I am bad,” “I make poor choices,” and “no one likes me,” to reframe into their strengths and to replace the negative with more positive thoughts of, “I am good,” “I can make mistakes and learn from them,” and “I have good friends and family that love me.”
Disaster weather scenarios, global issues, and societal shared traumatic events can be overwhelming for children to understand and navigate and may leave them with scarred emotional memories of survival and loss. Children who have suffered through severe hurricanes, terrorism, and even the current pandemic have endured complete community upheaval and can feel fear and anxiety about it happening again. EMDR can help children halt the intrusive fear responses of their past traumatic events and reprocess their neural networks to implement emotional regulation skills and use logical reasoning to highlight their strengths, safety networks, and positive supports and resources.
Physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse are traumatic experiences that heavily impact children and adolescents and can leave them feeling unprotected, scared, and alone. Research has found that two-thirds of children below the age of 16 have experienced trauma. Abuse can be difficult for children to talk about and may cause them to feel uneasy, shameful, or even guilty. With EMDR, children do not have to talk about their experiences aloud; they only need to visualize the memory and let their brains do the work! EMDR also works as preventative care to help children healthily reprocess the traumatic event, so it does not remain negative and intrusive as they age into their adulthood.
How Effective is EMDR for Children?
EMDR is very effective with children because children’s brains are more malleable and have less complex memory networks; therefore, their memories are easier to recall, and reprocessing often occurs more rapidly. Fearing being unsafe in a previous situation and having the thought, “I will always be unsafe,” can be transformed into focusing on the present and noticing, “I am safe now.” More traditional forms of therapy rely on direct questioning and have been found to feel interrogative and intrusive for children. EMDR can be a more inviting and interactive experience with its incorporation of play therapy to maintain the child’s attention, feelings of safety, and for the therapist to be able to meet the child at their developmentally appropriate level of self-expression and communication.
The complete eight-stage model can be easily adapted for children by highlighting their strengths of imagination, artistic creativity, and storytelling. EMDR therapy sessions with children may look different than with adults. Instead of watching side-to-side hand movements by the therapist, kids can engage in bilateral stimulation in fun ways like marching in place, drumming, or giving themselves a hug with alternating tapping on their arms. EMDR for children may also incorporate several different therapeutic modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy that encourages them to be more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and core mindfulness skills by creating and imagining calm spaces and increasing their coping skills toolbox.
How can parents help at home?
Parents can help their children by asking open-ended questions, showing non-judgmental compassion, and being open to their child’s process and progress. Parents should remember that what they identify as the most traumatic memory may not be the same as what their child identifies. Many kids will experience mixed up feelings during the phases, so please allow patience as your child works through the treatment method. Ask your child:
- What are your positive and negative cognitions/thoughts? What words or phrases do you need help to remember?
- Can you show me your BLS? Do you need help with practice?
- How can I help you remember to use your coping skills?
- Can you show me how you do a body scan? Do you want to do it together?
- How is it going? Is it easy, or are you having a hard time?
Celebrate growth and successes and give support for the tough times. You will know EMDR is working with your child when you notice a positive change in thought, behavior, emotions, or understanding about events that previously aroused negative emotions of anxiety, shame, or depression.