EMDR Therapy in Children: What Is It and What Are Its Benefits?

EMDR therapy for children is fast and effective in helping them process trauma and distressing experiences. Learn more.
EMDR Therapy in Children: What Is It and What Are Its Benefits?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 04 February, 2023

Although we tend to perceive childhood as a happy and simple stage, the truth is that children also face adversities. In fact, they’re much more vulnerable, and certain seemingly unimportant situations can even be traumatic for them. There are multiple psychological interventions to help children process difficult moments and emotions. But, undoubtedly, one of the most recommended is EMDR therapy in children.

This therapy has been widely researched and has decades of experience. Its results for the treatment of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or grief are very positive, but it’s especially effective in treating trauma and associated disorders. It’s a technique that can be used safely in children and adolescents. So today we want to tell you more about it.

What is EMDR therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was created in 1987 by American psychologist Francine Shapiro. Initially, it was created to help people overcome trauma and distressing situations, but nowadays, it has also been shown to be effective in other diseases.

To understand EMDR therapy, you need to understand that the human brain is prepared to face adversity by processing and integrating these negative experiences and learning from them. However, when they exceed the resources of the person, the event or memory is blocked and causes intense discomfort that can be prolonged over time if not intervened.

Therefore, what EMDR does is facilitate the process that has been blocked by using bilateral brain stimulation. That is, it seeks to activate both cerebral hemispheres by means of different techniques:

  • Eye movement: This is the most commonly used and the one that gives EMDR its name. To apply it, the person is invited to follow with their eyes an object that moves from side to side and with a rhythmic movement.
  • Auditory stimulation: Sounds or vibrations are used to alternately stimulate the cerebral hemispheres.
  • Tactile stimulation: Tapping is an option achieved by applying small, rhythmic, alternating taps on the knees, shoulders, or other areas of the body.
A child in a therapy sesion showing her paintings.
Playing games, drawing, dressing up, and storytelling facilitate expression and also work to promote the processing of the trauma in the child.

The objectives of EMDR therapy

With this process, the two main objectives of EMDR therapy are achieved:

  1. Desensitization: The person is mentally exposed to the traumatic memory and, thus, by ceasing to avoid it, achieves a habituation that leads to a decrease in negative symptoms.
  2. Reprocessing: By bringing to mind this distressing memory and while applying bilateral stimulation, it’s associated with other non-unpleasant memories or experiences. Therefore, the processing and integration that had been interrupted are put back into action and completed.

How does EMDR therapy work in children and adolescents?

EMDR therapy can be used in children from a preverbal stage up to adolescence. However, it requires certain adaptations and, above all, a lot of creativity on the part of the therapist.

The professional must not only be trained in EMDR but also have experience with children and know the different stages of development. They’ll need to adjust the procedure to the capabilities and the vital moment of each child.

When applying EMDR therapy in children, it’s important to make use of different resources to help the child to express what’s happening and what they need. In these cases, it can be difficult for them to verbalize their feelings.

A teenager in therapy.
For the therapy to be successful in both children and adolescents, achieving a good bond of attachment with the therapist is fundamental, and the family must be involved and cooperate.

The benefits of EMDR therapy in children

This type of therapy usually offers very good results when applied in children. Even better than in adults, as in minors, the emotional blockage is less deeply rooted. Thus, when the therapeutic process ends, the symptoms of discomfort have been eliminated. Moreover, even if the experience is remembered, the child no longer relives the distress or is limited in the present.

EMDR also offers a number of advantages over other effective interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The main ones are the following:

  • Exposure to traumatic memories is shorter than in other interventions. In addition, in children, it can be done in an indirect and symbolic way. The therapist doesn’t use exercises that aren’t part of the treatment.
  • The therapist doesn’t prescribe exercises for home, so the work is done during the consultation time.
  • During the process, the child is helped to acquire resources and tools that can be used in the future to deal with emotional difficulties.
  • It’s a fast, effective, and complete therapy, as it works on emotions, beliefs, and body sensations.

The best therapy for mental illnesses

In short, EMDR therapy in children achieves an integration of different brain areas involved in the traumatic memory (amygdala, hippocampus, and frontal cortex). Therefore, the event can be adequately processed by the nervous system and the symptoms of discomfort and maladaptive behaviors are eliminated. For all these reasons, it’s one of the most recommended interventions when it comes to mental illness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Ahmad, A., & Sundelin-Wahlsten, V. (2008). Applying EMDR on children with PTSD. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry17(3), 127-132.
  • Beer, R. (2018). Efficacy of EMDR therapy for children with PTSD: A review of the literature. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research12(4), 177-195.
  • Gauhar, Y. W. M. (2016). The efficacy of EMDR in the treatment of depression. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research10(2), 59-69.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.