EMDR for Children: How Safe and Effective Is It?

Young Girl Staring out WindowAs a therapist, I’ve used eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy to treat many adults with mental health issues resulting from trauma. This method of therapy is also safe and effective for children and adolescents, provided that the therapist is skilled and trained in working with this population and in this modality.

What Is EMDR?

When a painful or upsetting experience happens, the memory of the experience sometimes stays “stuck” in the body and mind. Over time, the occurrence may manifest anew in disturbing and invasive ways.

Dr. Ricky Greenwald, a pioneer in developing EMDR therapy for children and teens, describes EMDR as “a non-drug, non-hypnosis psychotherapy procedure. The therapist guides the client in concentrating on a troubling memory or emotion while moving the eyes rapidly back and forth (by following the therapist’s fingers). This rapid eye movement, which occurs naturally during dreaming, seems to speed the client’s movement through the healing process.”

After experiencing trauma, a child may have recurring nightmares or cope by avoiding things associated with the disturbing experience. For example, a child who experienced a car accident may exhibit defiant behavior when in a vehicle, or protest having to travel in the first place.

Essentially, EMDR can help the brain “digest” the memory of the traumatic event.

How Does EMDR Help Children?

EMDR is effective and well supported by research evidence for treating children with symptoms accompanying posttraumatic stress (PTSD), attachment issues, dissociation, and self-regulation. It has also been effective in treating symptoms related to guilt, anger, depression, and anxiety, and can be used to boost emotional resources such as confidence and self-esteem.

During the past five years, the World Health Organization and the California Evidence Based-Clearinghouse for Child Welfare recommended two psychotherapies for children, adolescents, and adults with PTSD: trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR. Of the two modalities, some of the research describes EMDR as “significantly more efficient.” My experience as a therapist echoes these recommendations.

One Therapist’s Experience with EMDR

I have personally witnessed children and teens improve in their overall functioning after being treated with EMDR, sometimes after only a few sessions. These children experienced PTSD symptoms as a result of bullying, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and invasive medical procedures. Some of these traumas occurred at the hands of someone with malicious intent; others were formed from the child’s perceived intent.

Since our emotional states are a result of how we perceive the world, a child may have stress related to a memory that, to anyone else, would not seem to be a “big deal.” In an effort to help their children “get over it,” parents often tell them things such as, “It’s not that bad,” or, “He wasn’t that mean to you.” But if the experience was traumatic to the child, it was traumatic—period.

In an effort to help their children “get over it,” parents often tell them things such as, “It’s not that bad,” or, “He wasn’t that mean to you.” But if the experience was traumatic to the child, it was traumatic—period.

Trauma can result from one event, multiple events, or a series of them. These events can cause children to see the world as dangerous and can alter their ability to function. A child may experience anxiety, fear of death, panic, powerlessness, anger, and deep sadness. When the trauma is a result of violence perpetrated by a caregiver they trust, it becomes overwhelming and can cause a child to be in a constant state of worry. This, of course, interferes with the child’s ability to trust or to sustain and maintain relationships.

Therapy can be a scary prospect to a child. When I explain to a child that our brains are amazing things that have the ability to heal themselves, and that I will help their brains do just that, they usually react with curiosity and intrigue and the process becomes much less scary.

What to Look for in an EMDR Therapist

The safety of any treatment modality depends on the practitioner’s aptitude to administer it. A licensed therapist who is fully trained in EMDR is well equipped to help a child or teen. The therapist should have training in how to apply the method to the child’s specific developmental needs and an ability to explain the process to the child in a way he or she will understand. A full history should be obtained from the parents, who should be considered partners in tracking changes in the child as the treatment progresses.

EMDR is often used in combination with other therapeutic modalities, such as art therapy, sand tray therapy, play therapy, yoga therapy, and even animal-assisted therapy. A therapist who offers a multifaceted approach, based on the child’s unique needs and interests, is ideal.

If interested in seeking the help of an EMDR-trained therapist, search GoodTherapy.org’s directory for a therapist near you.

References:

  1. California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.cebc4cw.org
  2. Gomez, A. (2008). Beyond PTSD: Treating depression in children and adolescents using EMDR. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the EMDR International Association, Phoenix, AZ.
  3. Jaberghaderi, N., Greenwald, R., Rubin, A., Zand, S. O., and Dolatabadi, S. (2004). A comparison of CBT and EMDR for sexually abused Iranian girls. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11,358-368.
  4. Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute. (2015). Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing. Retrieved from http://www.childtrauma.com/treatment/emdr/
  5. World Health Organization. (2013). Guidelines for the Management of Conditions Specifically Related to Stress. Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK159725/

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • Christian

    April 30th, 2015 at 12:39 PM

    I can’t believe that this was on here today because I took my daughter to a new counselor for anxiety yesterday and EMDR is exactly what she is going to be doing with her. I am so happy to read more about it so that hopefully I can understand a little more about it myself. I think that she is pretty convinced that this going to make a huge difference with her anxiety and quickly so I am happy to read that this is not beyond reach.

  • Isabell

    April 30th, 2015 at 2:58 PM

    Very safe and very effective given everything that I have ever read about it. I know that it could be frightening to try something new, but this is something that could make a huge impact on the life of a loved one in a very positive way. I am glad that the word is finally getting out about just how great it can actually be for someone who may have tried everything else but has gotten little out of it. This could be the answer for which they have been searching.

  • janeen

    janeen

    April 30th, 2015 at 6:45 PM

    Christian- I’m so glad to hear that the timing was just right. Best wishes to you and your daughter. I hope you find the therapy helpful.
    Isabel-thanks for your positive words of encouragement.

  • Chelcey

    May 2nd, 2015 at 1:44 AM

    This works for adults also. I was involved in a horrible sexual assault and had severe PTSD. My counselor administered EMDR to me and now when I think of the event, I don’t break down crying anymore. It has always helped me and I’m very greatful that I found out about it and have used it to alleve the anxiety, stress and sadness that comes from traumatic events.

  • Janeen

    Janeen

    May 4th, 2015 at 5:56 AM

    Chelcey, thanks for sharing that. So glad to hear you’ve gotten relief.

  • Yolanda Harper, LCSW

    May 2nd, 2015 at 1:18 PM

    Accelerated Resolution Therapy is another eye movement therapy that is more directive and therefor has fewer adversities risks. I’ve used it in my practice for almost 3 years and it clears trauma in a snap

  • Janeen

    Janeen

    May 4th, 2015 at 5:55 AM

    Yolanda,
    Thanks for the input. I’m not familiar with that method. Is it research-based?

  • Coleen L

    May 3rd, 2015 at 4:57 AM

    I have seen no evidence or studies of Accelerated Resolution Therapy–EMDR is approved by World Health Organization, Evidenced Based Clearing House, Blue Cross Blue Shield and more for treatment of trauma.

  • Harry

    May 4th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    I really don’t understand how this would work at all to retrain the brain? I am not saying that it doesn’t do it because obviously there is a lot pf research out there that says that it does, and a lot of providers who believe in it too. But I am just saying that I would have to give it a try for myself because I am sure that just reading about it doesn’t do it justice.

  • janeen

    janeen

    May 4th, 2015 at 12:09 PM

    Harry- great question. It helps to see it in action:
    emdr.com/client-session.html

  • janeen

    janeen

    May 4th, 2015 at 12:13 PM

    Coleen L, thanks for your comment. I think what I find most helpful in EMDR is not only does it relieve the effects of the trauma, but it also addresses the core beliefs of the client that led that traumatic memory to effect them in such a negative way. The adaptive processing model is the theory behind the method and the theory as well as the method have been heavily researched.

  • Harry

    May 6th, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    Thanks for the link Janeen!

  • Andrea

    July 12th, 2015 at 12:41 PM

    I experienced a severe trauma 8 years ago and finally got help dealing with how it changed me through EMDR. The event was a 2 year ordeal. My therapist suggested it and I was all for trying this therapy. I can’t tell you the difference it’s had on my life. I can now recall the event and even discuss it with no major emotional feelings. I have since gained confidence, lost 40lbs, enjoy life again, and am working to reconcile my marriage. Amazing what the brain can accomplish through EMDR. I highly recommend this therapy to anyone who has been through PTSD or another traumatic event.

  • Barton

    January 25th, 2016 at 12:08 PM

    This is very interesting. My daughter suffers from several traumatic events in her life. She was physically abused by her birth parents for the first two weeks of her life, when her grandmother stepped in as caregiver. Her husband at the time was controlling, manipulative, and emotionally abusive. At age three, she was diagnosed with leukemia and went through four years of chemo and radiation, finally having a bone marrow transplant and overcoming the cancer. This, of course, brought on all new and different traumas for her. In the midst of treatment, her grandmother went through a divorce and that’s when my wife and I stepped in as her forever parents. We struggle with finding a proper balance of medication for seizure disorder and a myriad of emotional and mental obstacles. Maybe this would be a good one for us to look into. My only real concern is that she can’t ever tell us specifically what is wrong, what thoughts or memories are causing her fear, frustration, and anger. She can only say that she feels funny and angry, and out of control.

  • janeen

    janeen

    January 25th, 2016 at 1:55 PM

    Barton, I’ve seen children with health issues improve as a result of healing the trauma. It’s worth a try. The great things about it is that the child doesn’t need to be able to explain alot. The brain does the work.

  • Cathie

    April 19th, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    I found this information very, very helpful.

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