Trauma does not discriminate based on age. Children can be affected by traumatic events, and even though the symptoms of trauma can manifest differently in children than adults, it doesn’t mean that children can’t also be impacted. When a child suffers from a trauma or a series of traumas, it can lead to poor emotional regulation, nightmares, depressive symptoms, difficulty forming attachments, behavioral issues, and trouble sleeping. Older children may engage in unsafe or risky behaviors like drinking, drugs, or unsafe sex. It is important to address stressful life events and traumas as early as possible, especially in children because childhood is one of the most developmentally significant times in life. Untreated trauma can lead to a variety of mental and physical issues later in life.
EMDR has been shown to be helpful when treating adults, but a growing body of research shows that the positive effects of EMDR can be applied to children as well. EMDR allows children to process traumatic events, and for a child a therapy that gives them the tools to break down and process their trauma is vital. Young children don’t have a lot of control in their lives, but EMDR gives them the opportunity to create a greater sense of control over their bodies and minds. Numerous studies have found that EMDR can decrease the symptoms of depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and PTSD in children. A study done by Carlijn de Roos (2017) compares the effectiveness of EMDR and Cognitive Behavioral Writing; researchers found that EMDR was extremely effective in reducing PTSD symptoms in children and that most of the children who went through the program no longer met the diagnostic requirements for PTSD. Another study conducted by Femy Wanders, Marike Serra, and Ad de Jongh (2017) found that EMDR intervention with children who have severe behavioral issues led to a decrease in negative behaviors and improved self-esteem.
EMDR & Play Therapy
Many clinicians use play therapy when treating children; however, play therapy alone is not always enough for children to really work through their issues. EMDRIA-Approved Consultant Cherilyn Rowland Petrie offers advanced EMDR therapy for complex trauma in children. She explains how an EMDR therapist might interpret a child’s play habits differently than a therapist who is not trained in EMDR: “Play therapists expect that the child’s world will be expressed in symbolic play. EMDR therapists would see in that same play the child’s activated memory networks, with associated thoughts, feelings, sensory information, and body sensations” (Rowland Petrie, 2021). Integrating EMDR with play therapy is a really great way to keep young children engaged in their healing process. The child has to want to be there and has to want to engage in the therapy––otherwise there is a possibility for relapse and further issues. Children learn through experimenting and hands-on experiences. Pairing EMDR and play therapy not only encourages this creativity but also provides children with control over their environment that they may otherwise not have.
When applied to children, EMDR shows promising results that are backed by case studies and research. EMDR for early childhood trauma is a safe and effective intervention that will allow children to better process their trauma and express their emotions. Therapists who decide to utilize EMDR with children should focus on the individual interests and needs of the child and may need to think outside the box to keep the child engaged; the outcome is well worth the effort.
By Lara Boerth-Dryden
Lara Boerth-Dryden is a Psychology major at Florida Atlantic University
Beckly- Forest, A. (2019, March 1). Exploring the Intersection of EMDR and Play Therapy. EMDR International Association. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from https://www.emdria.org/research/exploring-the-intersection-of-emdr-and-play-therapy/
de Roos, C., van der Oord, S., Zijlstra, B., Lucassen, S., Perrin, S., Emmelkamp, P., and de Jongh, A. (2017), Comparison of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, cognitive behavioral writing therapy, and wait-list in pediatric posttraumatic stress disorder following single-incident trauma: a multicenter randomized clinical trial. J Child Psychology Psychiatry, 58: 1219-1228. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12768
Turner, E. (2005). Affect regulation for children through art, play, and storytelling. In R. Shapiro (Ed.), EMDR solutions: Pathways to healing (pp. 327-344). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co
Wanders F., Serra M., Jongh A., (2008) EMDR Versus CBT for Children With Self-Esteem and Behavioral Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research. 10.1891/1933-322.214.171.124
Rowland Petrie, C., & Mauer, C. (2021). In Connect EMDR Basic Training Course (pp. 258–262).