Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements, sound, and tactile stimulation to help clients process traumatic experiences. EMDR therapy can be beneficial for children who have experienced trauma or struggling with other mental health issues.
An EMDR therapist can help young clients figure out which of their memories are getting stuck and giving them problems. They will be asked to focus on these upsetting memories while using back-and-forth movements, like moving your eyes, tapping, marching, using buzzers, or listening to sounds, to help their brains and bodies get unstuck. These movements are all types of bilateral stimulation—meaning that they light up both sides of your brain and body.
The goal of EMDR is to help your child find ways to cope with their symptoms so they can be a kid again! Below are 3 challenges you might face when working with young clients and strategies that can help you overcome them.
Challenge #1: EMDR Therapy was Created for Adults EMDR therapy was originally designed for adults. As a result, it may not always be the best fit for children. Children's brains are still developing and therefore have different capacities than adults' brains. Just like all forms of therapy, this means that EMDR may need to be adapted when working with young clients; otherwise, you might not see the progress or results you want from EMDR therapy sessions with them.
How to overcome it: Consider the child's development and adapt the frequency, intensity and length of the EMDR session as appropriate. EMDR therapy can even be used for 5 to 10 minutes at a time; the remaining time in the session can be dedicated to play, expressive art or practicing new coping skills.
Challenge #2: Working with a Child Means Working with their Adults Unfortunately, kids are rarely the ones who say, “I want to go and do EMDR therapy to reprocess my trauma.” Working with the adults involved in the child's life may pose a variety of challenges. Some adults need excessive communication regarding their child’s progress. Some may have a difficult time making changes at home. And in the most serious cases, the adults in a child's life may be the perpetrator or are actively involved in contributing to the trauma. One of the biggest challenges when working with children and trauma with EMDR is assessing if the trauma is still active. For example, the child could be in the middle of a nasty custody battle or living in a chaotic home environment.
How to overcome it: Be sure to fully explain EMDR, its process, and what the adults—and their child—can expect. Consider conjoint EMDR sessions with the child and their adults in the same room. EMDR therapists have the opportunity to not only help a child heal from their trauma, but foster healing for attachment wounds and address potential vicarious trauma for the adult in relation to the child.
Challenge #3: The Scripted Protocol Leaves Little Room for Innovation If you are a therapist who has gone through basic EMDR training, you are probably familiar with the phrase "stick to the script!" Basic EMDR training provides a script for EMDR standard protocol to guide and support therapists in administering the 8 phases of EMDR therapy correctly. In a field like psychology, it might seem like an advantage for therapists to have their work planned out in advance. However, many report feeling robotic and awkward when reading the script. Additionally, they find it challenging to adapt the script in a more child friendly language.
How to overcome it: Though EMDR has its black-and-white script, it doesn’t mean you can’t alter portions of the process for your younger clients. Kids want to move and have fun, and this is how they learn! Adapt EMDR for kids with drawing, art, games, storytelling, and more. Help them engage in the bilateral movements by using rhythm, music, and movement with instruments or apps such as Spotify. Finally, have fun or calming activities prepared and allow for time at the end of a session so that children can feel grounded, stable and safe again after their session.