EMDR and Children



Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a treatment method that is effective for resolving emotional difficulties caused by disturbing, difficult, or frightening life experiences. EMDR has been used to help children overcome traumatic events and other childhood problems and symptoms.

When children are traumatized, have upsetting experiences or repeated failures; they lose a sense of control over their lives. This can result in symptoms of anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, guilt, and/or behavioral problems. We recognize that events such as accidents, abuse, violence, death, and natural disasters are traumatic but we do not always recognize the ways they effect and influence children’s everyday lives. Even common upsetting childhood events such as divorce, school problems, peer difficulties, failures, and family problems can deeply affect a child’s sense of security, self-esteem, and development.

When an upsetting, scary or painful experience happens, sometimes the memory of the experience stays "stuck" or "frozen" in the mind. The experience may return in a distressing and intrusive way. Or the child may cope by avoiding everything associated with the upsetting experience. For example, when a child has experienced a bad bicycle accident, there may be repeated nightmares, fears of trying new things, and avoidance of things associated with a bike.

Most experts agree that one way to get "unstuck"" and free from the symptoms is through exposure to the traumatic experience. This means to face the memories or troubling events until they are no longer disturbing. EMDR combines elements of several well-established clinical theoretical orientations (e.g., psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, client-centered) together with "bilateral stimulation" in a unique and novel way to dissipate the upset associated with the experience. Bilateral stimulation refers to the use of alternating, right- left tracking that may take the form of eye movements, tones or music delivered to each ear, or tactile stimulation, such as alternating hand taps. Creative alternatives have been developed for children that incorporate the bilateral stimulation, using puppets, stories, dance, art, and even swimming.

EMDR helps process the troubling thoughts, feelings, and memories so that children can return to their normal developmental tasks and prior levels of coping. EMDR being used with other childhood problems that are not caused by trauma, such as attention deficits (AD/HD), anxiety and depressive disorders. EMDR can also help to strengthen feelings of confidence, calmness and mastery.


In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that under certain conditions eye movements can reduce the intensity of negative, disturbing thoughts. Dr. Shapiro studied this effect scientifically, and, in 1989, she published a study reporting success using EMDR to treat adult victims of trauma. Since then, EMDR has developed through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world. There are now more scientific studies proving the efficacy of using EMDR to resolve trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than any other psychotherapy method.

This revolutionary therapy has been adapted and modified for children. Over the last 10 years, EMDR has been used world wide to help children. There are hundreds of case study reports on the positive effects of EMDR with children. Positive outcomes in the Oklahoma bombing, Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Iniki, the shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas are just a few case examples of EMDR being successfully used with children. Case reports with children have been consistent with research findings using EMDR with adults. As with many other treatment modalities, scientific controlled outcome studies on child therapy have lagged behind clinical case reports. To date, the research studies conducted on using EMDR with children, have showed positive results, including achieving a positive outcome where previous treatment had failed (Chemtob & Nakashima, 1996).

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