What is EMDR? And Should Your Child Get It In Therapy?

By Jen Taylor | Parenting Tips

May 21

EMDR should only be performed by a trained clinician who understands the complexities of trauma and who is prepared to manage any adverse reactions that might come up.

That being said, EMDR is just one of the combinations of letters that are used by therapists to abbreviate a treatment approach.  Even most professionals have a hard time remembering exactly what EMDR stands for.   Let’s just say it’s can be a great treatment option (even for kids).  Let me explain it as simply as possible.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a type of mental health treatment that stands for

Eye

Movement

Desensitization and

Reprocessing

Whoa! That’s a mouthful.  I think that’s one of the reasons that the abbreviation is used so commonly.  Also, because the name itself is kinda scary. Eye movement and reprocessing? What?

Common Concerns About EMDR

So, when you tell kids what EMDR stands for, they immediately freak out and think that you are going to touch their eyes, or somehow mess with their vision, or make it difficult for them to see.  Or, they think about reprocessing and are afraid that you are going to erase their memory or take away some part of their brain.

I really wish that they would have given this therapy another name.  I’ve even heard that the creator, Francine Shapiro, has stated that she wishes that she would have chosen another name for this therapy.

Nonetheless, EMDR does not “mess with” your eyes or vision and it does not “erase your memories” or do any special magic tricks.

What is EMDR for?

EMDR is usually associated with trauma-most frequently with combat veterans.  But, it’s really for anyone that has been through a life threatening of severely frightening experience.  For that reason, it is often associated with the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But, even more simply, it can be effective for any distressing or disturbing memory or life event.  In training, we practiced with very mildly distressing events (like a minor traffic accident or a small disagreement with a co-worker).

So, the short answer is that EMDR is especially good at dealing with BIG trauma (abuse, rape, violence, war, major injuries, etc) but can also be extremely effective at dealing with LITTLE traumas (change in schools, divorce, bullying incident, something embarrassing).

Who is a good candidate for EMDR?

Most anyone can be a good candidate for EMDR.  There is a myth that EMDR can only be used on adults.  That is simply untrue.  EMDR can be used with children (even pre-verbal children in some cases).

The only people who are not good candidates for traditional EMDR are people who score high on a screening tool for Dissociative Disorder.  More than likely, your child does not have Dissociative Disorder.  But, your clinician should do the screening anyway.

**Dissociative Disorder is characterized by a breakdown in memory, awareness, identity, or perception that can sometimes develop as a defense mechanism for dealing with trauma. People who have this diagnosis require an even more specifically trained clinician in order to receive EMDR therapy.

My Cartoon That Explains EMDR

(Make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel while you’re there…help me get to at least 100).

More Details About EMDR Therapy?

After the initial screening, there are follow up sessions to prepare the child to manage trauma symptoms.  This is similar to other therapy models and includes mindfulness techniques, creation of safe/relaxing images, and other positive coping skills needed to manage stress.

The therapist then helps the child to select a  target memory that causes them distress.   Typically, this is a part of the traumatic event that feels “stuck” or “frozen.”  The child identifies a negative thought that often comes up when that memory is accessed.

Thoughts might be things like, “I am a bad person” or “It’s all my fault.”

Next, the therapists asks the child to think about that distressing memory while doing something else.  That something else is called Dual Attention Stimulation (also known as Bilateral Stimulation).

The Key To EMDR: Dual Attention Stimulation

Dual Attention Stimulation is where the Eye Movement stuff comes in.  When this therapy was created, this meant moving your eyes back and forth (following the therapists finger) while thinking about the trauma.

For children, I rarely use this form of Dual Attention Stimulation.  More often, I use a little device us therapists refer to as “the buzzies.”  Want to see the buzzies in action?

Watch this little Youtube Video (and don’t forget to subscribe!)

How the Buzzies Work:

The child holds one in each hand and they gently vibrate back and forth (in the left hand and then in right hand).  Most kids find these to be very relaxing.  It is not a shock therapy and it is not painful at all.

Other forms of Dual Attention Stimulation:

  • Headphones that alternate beeps in the right ear and then the left
  • Tapping your arms on the right and left side (aka: The Butterfly Hug)
  • Alternating taps with each hand in the sandbox
  • Throwing a ball back and forth with each hand
  • Swimming (not in my office…but it has been done elsewhere).

That doesn’t sound so scary

Throwing a ball back and forth while thinking about something distressing doesn’t sound nearly as scary as “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” But it works in the same way.

DISCLAIMER AGAIN:

EMDR should only be performed by a trained clinician who understands the complexities of trauma and who is prepared to manage any adverse reactions that might come up.  Remember, any feeling that was felt during the trauma might come up during this therapy.  Don’t assume that just because this sounds simple enough that you can do this therapy on your own.

That being said:

Sometimes Dual Attention Stimulation by itself can help kids relax when they are angry, frustrated or scared.  I often recommend to parents to have their children  go for a run, take a swim, or dribble a basketball if they are really mad about something.  It can help reduce the intensity of the emotion. But it is not EMDR.  Practicing using Dual Attention Stimulation during times of stress is often given as homework or practice between therapy sessions.

Other Parts of EMDR

Another critical component of EMDR is pairing the distressing image with a more positive thought. Something like, “It’s not my fault” or “I’m OK now.”

The memory is still there.  The event still happened. But instead of thinking about it and feeling bad about yourself and having a negative reaction in your body, you feel neutral.

People often say,

“The memory is there.  It happened.  But it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

 Considerations for Choosing an EMDR Clinician

If your child has experienced a big or little trauma and you think they could benefit from EMDR therapy, contact my office to discuss it in more detail.   Or you can go search a directory of trained EMDR clinicians on this website.   Look for a clinician that is either  “EMDR Certified” or “EMDR Trained.”

I am “EMDR Trained.”   That means that I have been through the initial training course.  This course is 20 hours of didactic training, 20 hours of practicum and 10 hours of consultation.   EMDR certified therapists continue with additional consultation and quite simply are more experienced.

Just avoid a therapist who “went to a class one time about EMDR.”

Final Thoughts:

I like EMDR and find it to be especially helpful for kids who have been through other treatment (like TF-CBT) and found it ineffective.  It’s really good for kids that “don’t want to talk about it” because it does not require the detailed retelling of the trauma the way other therapies do.  Not always, but often, it can be effective is just a few sessions (1-3 sessions and some children are feeling significantly better).

If you are a professional and want to get more tips and tricks delivered straight to your inbox including my free Play Therapy A-Z Tool Kit and the new Ultimate RPT tracking form, be sure to sign up here.

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And as always,

Play Well!

About the Author

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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