Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a highly effective therapeutic method for helping individuals process traumatic events. Much research supports the safety and efficacy of EMDR for children and adolescents when therapy is provided by a skilled practitioner trained to work specifically with this population. EMDR in combination with art and play therapies is used to treat symptoms of traumatic exposure including guilt, anger, depression, anxiety, self-esteem and attachment issues.
After an upsetting or overwhelming experience, the memory of what happened can stay stuck (unprocessed) in the mind and body. The purpose of EMDR is to utilize the body’s natural mechanism for reprocessing, by guiding the child through a series of rapid eye movements similar to those which occur during dreaming. The eye movement, accompanied by the mindful presence and emotional attunement of the therapist, accelerates the healing process.
The first stage of EMDR treatment consists of creating a safe place for the child. This can be facilitated through painting, or by creating a safe place in the sand using small figurines. Bilateral stimulation in the form of tapping on the shoulders (butterfly hug) or knees is added while the child creates his/her safe place. The safe place functions as a resource which can be drawn upon if the child becomes overwhelmed at any point.
After therapeutic trust and a safe place have been established, the therapist will ask the child to bring up an upsetting image of the trauma memory and associated negative thoughts and self-beliefs. This can be done through talk therapy, painting, or by using toys and objects in the room to represent what happened. Bilateral stimulation is used again to reprocess the upsetting experiences and memories, feelings, and beliefs.
The prospect of therapy can be a scary for a child, especially if the original trauma involved a breach of trust. An experienced therapist who is able to use a variety of approaches including art, play, and sand tray therapy to tailor EMDR treatment to the unique needs of the child, is ideal.