EMDR Therapy for Children
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro when she went on a walk to think through some disturbing events in her life. She noticed that she no longer felt distressed and then remembered her eyes had naturally been moving back and forth during the walk.
Over the years, Dr. Shapiro developed the formal method of EMDR including elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic theory, and body-centered therapy, as well as the alternate stimulation of the right and left hemispheres through of the use of eye movement, tapping or auditory tones. Today EMDR is used worldwide to treat the effects of trauma in both adults as well as children.
Though we tend to think of trauma as a life threatening event, less perilous experiences can feel traumatic when they compromise our perception of safety. For children, a playground accident, a choking episode, a prolonged illness, a medical procedure, a hospital stay, the loss of a pet or loved one can be experienced as traumatic.
More important than the event itself is the degree to which children perceive themselves as powerful or powerless. If their instinct to take some purposeful and protective action is thwarted, neurochemicals (e.g., adrenaline), sensory data (e.g., sounds, sights, smells) and corresponding emotions (e.g., fear or panic) can get stored in the body.
As a result, children remain in emergency mode, ready to respond to danger. Small, seemingly random occurrences remind the child of the traumatic event and set off an alarm in the child’s brain and body. Without thinking the child reacts with highly charged and intense behaviors.
Fortunately, children inherently posses a healthy ego-centrism that gives them the energy they need to meet on-going challenges throughout childhood. If children get stuck in a defensive, reactive or shut down mode, a process such as EMDR can set them free.
As an EMDR clinician, I engage the child in a playful form of bi-lateral stimulation such as tapping games, drumming, rocking, or eye movement as the child recalls the traumatic event through storytelling, drawing or playing. The skillful blending of bi-lateral input and experiential recall enables children to adaptively process the event and discharge the associated sensory data and emotions. Children are then able to reconnect to self-affirming beliefs in their competence, power, safety and well being.