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Sunny Psychology Maroochydore

EMDR Therapy for Children

“Psychopathology is a disorder of the memory”

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

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Why would a child need EMDR therapy?

EMDR therapy views all emotional, psychological and behavioural difficulties as being related to a painful or upsetting memory of an experience that got ‘stuck’ in the body and mind. The memory wasn’t (fully) processed.

A child may have stress related to a memory that, to anyone else, would not seem to be a “big deal.” The memories can be the result from one event or  multiple events These events can cause children to see the world as a dangerous place, or cause them to mistrust the care provided and this can alter their ability to function. 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 behaviour when travelling by car, or protest having to travel in the first place.

When a memory network has been impacted, over time the event may manifest again in disturbing and invasive ways and lead to (separation) anxiety, worry and panic, anger and oppositional behaviour and feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and hopelessness.

See our resources page for more information on how memory is related to our health and wellbeing. You can find a videos of what to expect during an EMDR session there.

Regulate, then relate, then reason.
- Dr Bruce Perry, Child psychiatrist and trauma specialist

How EMDR therapy can help children and teens

Essentially, EMDR can help the brain “digest” the memory of the traumatic event. 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 child or teen in concentrating on a troubling memory or emotion while either moving the eyes rapidly back and forth (by following the therapist’s fingers) or using tactile buzzies that vibrate in their hands or pockets. This technique is called bi-lateral stimulation, as it stimulates both parts of the brain. It is very similar to rapid eye movement, which occurs naturally during dreaming. EMDR speeds up the client’s movement through the healing process, without having to talk about the details.

Please visit the Resources page for downloads for a child, teen and parent handout explaining EMDR in more detail.

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How EMDR works with children and teens

Therapy can be a scary prospect to a child or teen. When I explain to a young client 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.

The memory networks of younger clients are much smaller than those of adults, which means that EMDR therapy usually has fast results.

EMDR therapy can be used with babies and toddlers, non-verbal children and children that (say they have) no memory of any upsetting events. Because EMDR doesn’t require much talking, the caregivers can share a summary of a story (e.g. a hospital visit) while we process.

If the child doesn’t want to engage, doesn’t know their story or would prefer the caregivers to not be part of the therapy, we can use the Sandtray Protocol.

* All photos of clients in session have been published with their permission. 

Enter into children’s play and you will find the place where their minds, hearts and souls meet.
- Virginia Axline, psychologist and pioneer of play therapy

EMDR and the sandtray protocol

As described here EMDR doesn’t require the client to speak about what happened in very much detail or even vividly remember. Because talking about painful events can be particularly hard for children and because they often don’t remember events the way adults do, EMDR therapy is great for children.

Psychotherapist and EMDR trainer Ana Gomez has developed the ‘EMDR sandtray protocol’. Ana explains the following about the combination of EMDR and sandtray therapy: “The sandtray protocol is especially useful for children that present with dysregulation of the affective system and require greater distance from the traumatic material. In addition, children that use a number of mechanisms of adaptation such as avoidance can highly benefit from using this protocol. The EMDR-Sandtray protocol offers various levels of distance from the traumatic material: The actual memory of trauma where the self is present in the story, to the general story/world where the self is absent. One of the wonderful assets of sand tray therapy is its capacity to access implicit and right hemisphere material through the use of stories, symbols and archetypes.”

During the Sandtray sessions, the child has free reign over the sandbox. This is particularly important because the Sandtray is seen as the child’s ‘inner world’ and it is not our place to interfere. Through play and the use of tapping or the tactile buzzers during the processing phases of EMDR, the child will process “yucky” experiences and emotions and replace unhelpful beliefs with helpful beliefs.

* All photos of clients in session have been published with their permission. 

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EMDR is safe and 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.

The safety of any treatment modality depends on the practitioner’s ability to administer it. A (registered) 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 they will understand. A full history should be obtained from the caregivers, who will be considered partners in tracking changes in the child as the treatment progresses.

The caregiver doesn’t have to be a parent, it can be a grandparent, aunt or uncle, foster carer or anyone else who is looking after the child on a full-time basis.