EMDR for Children

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new therapy, which has been established for over 20 years. It is an extremely effective treatment for people – children as well as adults – who have had traumatic experiences.


How does trauma affect us?

Everyone has traumatic experiences during their lives. The effects can be physical, psychological or a mixture of the two. Most recover quickly, some do not. Sometimes the effect of a trauma can stay with us and affect our lives long after the event. Specialist help may be needed to aid recovery.


The effects on children

Sometimes the traumas a child experiences are easy to see – death, or a road traffic accident, for example. But it is not always that easy.

The traumas are usually clear-cut, but not always. Sometimes, as a parent, you may know what the trauma might be but your child does not. This could be because the traumas may have taken place so early in life that they are not remembered or the child may have pushed them out of mind or “forgotten” them.

When children do not remember the traumatic incidents, they often show the effects through behaviour. These are often signs of ‘Emotional stuck points’ (ESP). For example they may not laugh, play or smile much. They may be too obedient and willing to go with any adult. They may be unable to stand up for themselves or protest when badly treated. Sometimes parents know something is very wrong but are not aware that anything traumatic has happened.

‘Emotional stuck points’ tend to be less clear-cut than specific traumas. EMDR can be used to improve self-esteem and help with depression, anxiety, non-co-operation or anti-social behaviour such as lying and stealing. Self-esteem targets can be especially useful with children diagnosed as ADHD, as they are frequently and repetitively traumatized by the school systems, their peers, and their families.

Why is traumatic experience so relevant?

This seems to have something to do with the way the brain processes information when traumas occur.

Think about how ordinary memories are formed. Usually, when something happens, your eyes, ears and other senses are the first to respond. This body of information is then stored as memories. These usually have a story-like quality, and contain your impressions and interpretations as well as facts about what happened.

When something dangerous happens, your body and brain respond in a different way. Your body recognises the emergency and takes protective action, its messages to the brain seem to be put into an emergency store often without going through the normal memory processing.

These experiences – with the original sound, thoughts and feelings – are recorded in your brain in the raw unprocessed form.

Sometimes the brain does not process them in the normal way to form ordinary memories. They are even stored in a different part of the brain.

How are traumatic memories different?

Traumatic memories seem to become locked into the brain in their “raw” form. When these memories are recalled they can be very upsetting. Sometimes they can be recalled out of the blue causing flashbacks, nightmares and outbursts. They can make it very difficult to deal with ordinary stressful situations in a calm and reasonable way that we normally would.

Does a child who has experienced trauma also experience dissociation?

Children who have experienced trauma may also experience dissociation. Whilst dissociation varies as it occurs along a continuum; everyone experiences dissociative episodes, such as boredom, fatigue, or fear may facilitate dissociation; when an individual enters a trance-like state that can last for brief or extensive periods of time.

Sometimes, during frightening situations, like an earthquake, individuals may have brief dissociative episodes, later being unable to remember specifically what happened, or how they got from one place to another. Children often describe “out of body” experiences, in which they feel as if they are floating on the ceiling.

The ability to dissociate allows the child to mentally escape the dangerous or threatening situation. At the same time, the child may become confused about his/her identity, having trouble remembering what has occurred.

It is thought that the more chronic and severe the trauma, the greater the likelihood of extensive dissociation. However, it is believed that the trauma must eventually be brought into awareness and put into perspective, or the repressed memories will appear in the form of intrustive thoughts, nightmares, reenactments, or emotional problems.

How can EMDR help?

EMDR is an approach that seems to help ‘unblock’ the brain’s processing so that traumatic memories can become “ordinary” memories. There is supportive evidence that EMDR is successful in treating adults or people who have suffered post traumatic stress disorder. It facilitates the alternating left-right stimulation of the brain – or with REM sleep in which the eyes often move from side to side on their own. The eye movements may help to process the unconscious material.

Length of time it can take for a child to get over a traumatic event or fear?

Whilst it is not possible to predict how long it will take for a child’s symptoms to resolve, EMDR can help therapy to go faster, but not necessarily fast. The length of time it takes for a child to get over a traumatic event may depend on many factors, including the type and severity of the trauma, the age at which the trauma occurred, the extent to which other family members have gotten over the trauma, the stability of the child’s current environment, your child’s personality and level of functioning before the traumatic event, and whether your child is able and willing to participate in doing EMDR.

Please contact debramayplaytherapy@aol.co.uk for more information and costs.

Association UK and Ireland

Gil, E (1991) “The healing power of play”, The Guildford Press, New York

Lovett, J. L (1999) “Small wonders – healing childhood trauma with EMDR”, Free Press, New York

Tinker, R and Wilson S (1999) “Through the eyes of a child”,WW Norton & Co, Inc, New York