When Children Experience Trauma, EMDR Can Help

EMDR for children with trauma
Because we live in a broken world, children will have negative experiences no matter how vigilant a parent is. Trauma is a word used to describe negative experiences that are severe enough to impair our functioning or emotional regulation. EMDR is a therapeutic technique that has been clinically proven to help clients who have experienced trauma—including children. Hannah Pitman, MA, LPC unpacks what trauma is, how it can manifest in children, and the ways it can be healed by EMDR.

Trauma can come in many shapes and forms. The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders defines trauma as a response to an experience that is “deeply distressing or disturbing.” [1] What is experienced as traumatic may differ from person to person. Some experiences that might cause trauma include abuse and neglect, a terrible car crash, losing a loved one, or experiencing bullying. Unfortunately, most children will have negative experiences, even despite a parent’s best efforts. A study examining Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) found that 67% of children will experience at least one type of trauma before they turn 18. [2] Thankfully, God has given us ways to help children and families heal from heartbreaking experiences.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. It has been shown to be extremely effective in treating trauma, and it can also help people cope with anxiety, depression, and grief. EMDR was first used for adults with trauma, but now it can be used with children down to the age of four.

The “Haunted House”: How Trauma Affects the Brain
Trauma can be split into two categories, single-event trauma and chronic trauma. Examples of single-event trauma are a car crash, the death of a family member, or a violent dog bite; chronic trauma could result from experiences such as prolonged exposure to domestic violence, consistent bullying at school, or living in a home where parents are stressed for a long period of time. In both cases, once the stressor is removed, a child may still struggle to cope with daily things.

Take for example a haunted house. Even though you know cognitively that you cannot be hurt by zombies or monsters, when one comes towards you, it is likely you still find your heart racing and your body sweating. Although you recognize that the strange sights and sounds are illusions, it is likely that you will scream loudly when a clown jumps out of the side door, despite your cognitive knowledge of the truth. This is because your fight, flight, or freeze response has kicked in with the startle. Our fight, flight, or freeze response is designed to keep us safe, allowing us to respond reflexively in many situations. It is what causes your foot to slam on the brake when a car darts in front of your own and causes your adrenaline to start pumping when confronted with a dangerous animal.

Trauma causes the fight, flight, or freeze response to kick in even when a person is not actually in danger. A child who has experienced trauma can experience certain environments as if they are haunted houses. A traumatic experience of a car wreck may cause a child to “fight, flight, or freeze” anytime they see another car on the road, even though they know that they are safe in the car with their mother. An adopted child may know cognitively that their new parents will keep them safe, but every time they walk in the door of their new home their fight, flight, or freeze response might start as a result of things they have experienced in previous home environments.

Because a brain that has experienced trauma assumes a fight, flight, or freeze response more often, it is less able to control big emotions. Children may have extreme outbursts caused by seemingly small disappointments or “check out” and have a blank expression in response to seemingly tiny issues. They may struggle to focus on their homework or in their classroom, and they may experience trouble sleeping.

EMDR for Children: Reprocessing Trauma
Trauma causes the fight, flight, or freeze response to kick in because traumatic memories are stored differently than regular memories. They are fragmented in pieces in the emotional part of the brain (the same part that activates fight, flight, or freeze), which is why certain smells, sounds, or shapes that mimic a child’s trauma can trigger strong reactions. One of the most effective modes of therapy to help children process through their trauma is called EMDR.  EMDR is a form of therapy that helps a child process through their trauma in a way that brings together all the fragmented pieces into a correct memory and stores it in the appropriate place in the brain, rather than the emotional place in the brain. During REM sleep, our brains process all the normal memories of the day and store them away in the correct places in the brain. EMDR mimics REM sleep for traumatic memories, allowing these memories to be appropriately processed and stored.

A child that comes to therapy for EMDR would first start to establish trust with the therapist, learn EMDR coping skills, play feeling games, and learn how their thoughts can affect them. With this groundwork established, the EMDR desensitization to process the traumatic memory could begin. The child and therapist decide whether the child would like to use eye movements or tappers (tappers are little buzzers that the child can hold in their hands or put in their shoes to process). A target around the trauma, including the worst part of the event, negative beliefs, and emotions is set up. Then, the therapist runs tappers or eye movements for 30 seconds to a minute at a time as the child concentrates on the target. In between sets of eye movements or tappers, the child uses a sand tray, drawing, or words to share what they experienced. In this way, the brain can use its God-given ability to process memories of the trauma and store them away appropriately.

Traumatic experiences can be challenging, heartbreaking, and can cause difficulty in daily functioning. If your child has experienced trauma, EMDR may be able to help them process and find relief from their trauma. This will help them to sleep more peacefully, cope with their big emotions, and live more wholly as God designed them to be. It can give your child the chance to move past the difficult things that have occurred so that they can enjoy positive relationships and activities with more control over their reactions to small stressors. At ALCS, we want to help your family live well. If you are interested in EMDR therapy for your child, contact us today.

Hannah Pitman, Austin counselor
Hannah is a past ALCS therapist who is sadly no longer a part of the ALCS team. She is currently a full-time stay at home mom, but still enjoys leading TBRI trainings on occasion. If you are interested in scheduling a training, you can reach out to ALCS administrative staff and they can connect you to Hannah.
Further Resources
EMDR International Association Website
How EMDR works
Dan Siegel: Fight, flight, or freeze brain
Simulation of EMDR with children 8-12 (English subtitles available)
Trauma from a TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention) perspective 
 A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes, Sasha J. Mudlaff, and Cary Pillo (children's book, specific to children with trauma)
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing by Bruce Perry, M.D., PhD, and Maia Szalavitz **contains some graphic descriptions**
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. **contains some graphic descriptions**
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