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Benefits of EMDR Therapy for Children

Anchor Light Therapy Collective

Feb 22, 2024

EMDR can be particularly beneficial for children who have experienced traumatic events like natural disasters, accidents, or abuse. For example, a child who survived a hurricane might feel intense fear whenever it rains heavily, triggering memories of the storm. Through EMDR, they can learn to manage this fear and regain a sense of safety. Similarly, a child who witnessed a car accident might struggle with nightmares or flashbacks when they see cars speeding by. With EMDR, they can work through these distressing memories and develop coping strategies to feel more secure in their surroundings. Overall, EMDR provides a structured and effective approach to help children process and heal from traumatic experiences, empowering them to move forward with resilience and confidence.

What is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective psychotherapy method designed to help individuals, especially children, overcome trauma, emotional difficulties, and distressing life events without the need for severe trauma diagnoses.

Through a collaborative eight-stage process, EMDR therapists guide children to focus on and reprocess troubling memories by replacing negative thought patterns with healthier ones, using bilateral stimulation techniques such as eye movements or foot tapping. This approach helps shift “stuck” emotional memories to a more manageable state, enabling the brain to process these experiences from the emotional to the reasoning part, thus reducing overwhelming emotional reactions.

How accessible is EMDR for children?

As a non-hypnosis psychotherapy procedure, it is worth exploring if you think EMDR treatment is right for your child. EMDR therapy is accessible for any overwhelming experience, aiming to alleviate symptoms like tantrums, nightmares, and avoidance. It works by teaching the brain to view past events without distress, making it a powerful tool for healing and emotional resilience in children. We facilitate trauma-informed treatment, helping them navigate and integrate these feelings and find the light at the other end of the tunnel.

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What common issues can EMDR address in children?

An EMDR therapist can help children strengthen their resiliency and overcome negative self-perceptions and thought patterns. It makes an impact 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.

Below are 13 issues that EMDR addresses and heals:

1. Separation Anxiety

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.”

2. Impulsivity/Tantrums

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.”

3. 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.”

4. 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.

5. 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.”

6. Phobias/Anxiety/Nightmares

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.

7. Depression/Low Self-Esteem

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.” While EMDR is a common treatment for depression in children, other depression therapy treatments are also available.

8. Natural Disasters

Natural disasters like severe hurricanes and earthquakes can deeply impact children, leaving them with emotional scars and fears of recurrence. EMDR provides a means to address these traumas by helping children overcome intrusive fear responses and reprocess their experiences. Through this therapy, children can develop emotional regulation skills, focus on their strengths, and build positive support networks to navigate their recovery journey.

9. Pandemic

In the aftermath of a pandemic, children may struggle with emotional scars and fears of recurrence. EMDR offers a way to address these challenges by helping children overcome intrusive fear responses and reprocess their experiences. Through this therapy, children can develop emotional regulation skills, focus on their strengths, and build positive support networks to navigate their recovery journey.

10. Trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Abuse

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. EMDR is a very effective method of trauma therapy.

11. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

EMDR therapy can assist children with ADHD in managing symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty maintaining attention. Traumatic experiences or adverse childhood events can exacerbate ADHD symptoms, and EMDR can help address underlying trauma contributing to these symptoms.

12. Social Anxiety Disorder

EMDR therapy can be beneficial for individuals struggling with social anxiety by targeting negative beliefs and traumatic experiences related to social interactions or past instances of embarrassment or rejection. By reprocessing these experiences, individuals can develop more adaptive coping strategies and increase their confidence in social situations. Therapy for anxiety can take many forms, however EMDR is a great place to start.

13. Eating Disorders

EMDR therapy can be integrated into the treatment of eating disorders to address underlying trauma, negative self-beliefs, and maladaptive coping mechanisms that contribute to disordered eating behaviors. By processing traumatic memories and promoting self-compassion and self-esteem, EMDR can support children in their recovery journey from eating disorders.

How effective is EMDR for children?

EMDR works really well with kids because their brains are still developing and their memories are simpler compared to adults. This means they can recall memories more easily and the reprocessing happens faster. The experience-based preconceived notion of “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 becomes more engaging for kids when it includes play therapy, which helps keep their attention and makes them feel safe. This approach also allows therapists to understand and communicate with children based on their developmental stage.

How is EMDR adjusted for children and adolescents vs adults?

The complete eight-stage model can be easily adapted for children by highlighting their strengths of imagination, artistic creativity, and storytelling. EMDR therapy for adults may look different than with children. 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.

What age is appropriate for EMDR?

EMDR has been adapted for children as young as three years old, but factors such as developmental stage, attention span, and emotional capacity are key considerations when applying this treatment to younger audiences. There isn’t a strict age cutoff for kids undergoing EMDR; rather, it depends on factors like their cognitive abilities, language skills, and how well they handle emotions during therapy. Therapists also take into account the child’s experiences and resilience to gauge if they’re ready for EMDR, making sure the approach fits their needs.

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.

EMDR is effective for children and adolescents

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful tool for helping kids and teens deal with tough experiences. It’s structured but flexible, which means it can help them work through memories that bother them and replace bad thoughts with better ones. EMDR can help with lots of issues, like feeling anxious when apart from loved ones or dealing with trauma. It’s great for kids because it fits well with how they grow and learn. When parents and child therapists team up to use EMDR with children, they help them heal, get stronger, and see challenges in a more positive light.

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