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What Exactly is "EMDR" And Could It Help My Child?

There are so many different types of mental health treatment and therapy approaches out there that it can feel a bit overwhelming and confusing when trying to figure out what would be the best fit for your child. Today I'll tell you a little bit about EMDR, a treatment designed to support people who have had traumatic or highly stressful life experiences.

* What exactly is EMDR and is it effective?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been shown to help individuals heal from traumatic events or stressful life experiences. In the eight phases of EMDR, individuals first tap into their resources for resiliency and then reprocess traumatic memories in a way that brings them new insight and releases "stuck" negative emotions and thoughts.

EMDR is built on research that has found that traumatic events are often processed differently by our brains. This processing can result in the brain being on high alert that the event may happen again at any moment, or even that the event is happening right now in the present.

It may be helpful to imagine that our brain casts a wide net when trauma occurs, taking in a lot of information without it’s logical context. This can create what is called a “maladaptive network of memories” in which we become triggered when something in the environment is a reminder of the traumatic event. For example, a child that underwent physical abuse when they were being punished may react as if that is still happening to them when they are concerned about getting in trouble at school. The child may feel like they want to run away or they may feel ready to fight. The teacher that is caring for them may have no idea why the student is suddenly combative or appears extremely anxious, and the child may not even be aware of why they feel so mixed up either.

One integral component of EMDR is called "bilateral stimulation," a process in which the therapist guides you or your child through eye movements, drumming, tones, or taps. Research shows that bilateral stimulation allows us to maintain “dual attention,” which basically means that we are able to stay in the present moment and access those networks of memories in a way in which we can use the logical part of our brain to reprocess the memories in a more helpful way.

* How is EMDR different than other forms of therapy?

I find EMDR to be especially helpful with children as it does not require people to talk in detail about the traumatic event and relies on our nervous system’s natural way of healing. It has the structure of the eight phases, but can also be extremely flexible and other forms of therapy are easily included in sessions right alongside EMDR.

Depending on your needs (or your child's needs), many people find EMDR to allow insight and processing in fewer sessions than with traditional forms of therapy.

I especially appreciate that EMDR allows us to processes and relieves symptoms on multiple levels: cognitions (thoughts), somatic (body sensations), and emotionally.

* What does EMDR look like with children?

Play is how young children communicate and learn, so many therapists incorporate play, music, art, and sand tray into EMDR therapy. Parents are often very involved and will participate in sessions because we know that young children heal best within loving relationships.

In the beginning phases of EMDR, children will engage in “resourcing,” or finding ways to focus on their areas of resilience and positive memory network. They will also learn coping strategies to utilize in daily life and in the processing phase of EMDR.

The process of EMDR with children often occurs more quickly than it does with adults because children simply have less of a memory network than adults.

* How do I know whether my child is a good fit for EMDR?

Children are more successful in EMDR when there is at least one loving caregiver who is involved and can help the child cope with big feelings that may come up during trauma processing. This is true of many forms of therapy with children, but is especially true with EMDR.

In my experience, children that have trouble visualizing a memory, have difficulty with imagination, or are very literal thinkers may have difficulty with EMDR. The good news is that other types of interventions can be used in those situations and we will work together to tailor a treatment plan that works best for your child.

If this has piqued your interest in EMDR, you can watch this Good Morning America video about Prince Harry’s experience with EMDR to see a common form of bilateral stimulation, tapping, or what I call “Butterfly Hugs” with children (linked here). You can also learn even more about EMDR on the EMDRIA’s website (linked here).

I hope that you have found this post to be helpful in understanding more about EMDR and whether it could benefit your child. If you're interested in learning more about whether your own child could benefit from therapy, please check out our blog series on that topic here.

Kelly Jean Tucker is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Level I trained EMDR provider. She offers therapy to children ages 3-11 struggling with anxiety, behavioral concerns, and recovering from traumatic events in Asheville, NC. You can read more about Kelly Jean and her approach to working with children and families here.


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