When Children Struggle with Anxiety or Depression, EMDR Can Help

Anxiety and Depression have become commonplace in our world today. It can be disheartening when your child is struggling with one or both. Because we live in a broken world, everyone has a struggle, and unfortunately our children are not immune to the stressors of our culture today. EMDR is a therapeutic technique that has been clinically proven to help clients who are struggling with anxiety or depression—including children. Hannah Pitman, MA, LPC unpacks what anxiety and depression are, how they can manifest in children, and the ways they can be healed by EMDR.
Anxiety and Depression in Children
Anxiety and depression are some of the most common mental health struggles for people. They often occur together, because both are due to a lack of the neurochemicals norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain. Unfortunately, children are not immune to anxiety or depression, yet symptoms often manifest differently in children than in adults. While adults who struggle with anxiety and/or depression often feel sad or nervous, children who struggle with anxiety and/or depression may appear more angry or irritable than normal. Hyperawareness, constant question-asking, and refusal to leave a parent are also markers of high anxiety in children.

Onset of depression or anxiety in children can stem from a combination of genetic or environmental factors. Some children are predisposed genetically to anxiety or depression.  Sometimes, children become more prone to depression and anxiety due to external factors, like a big move, fighting at home, starting school, bullying, or experiencing trauma (check out the companion post on EMDR and trauma). Whatever the cause of your child’s anxiety or depression is, there is hope in a form of therapy called EMDR.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) was developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. It has been shown to be extremely effective in treating anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma. EMDR was first used for adults, but now it can be used with children down to the age of five.
How Does EMDR Work for Anxiety and Depression?
We have all experienced upsetting events in our lives; the key is how we are able to process and look back at these upsetting events. While we may be able to look back rationally on some of the upsetting memories in our lives and remain calm, recalling the ways it was terrible yet made us a better person, there may be other upsetting memories that still cause our insides to twist and our hearts to become heavy, no matter how long ago they occurred. The goal of EMDR is to help more memories and difficult thoughts to become like the first category of memories, where we can experience calm as we recall them. During REM sleep (the stage of sleep we experience as we dream), 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 difficult memories and thoughts, allowing them to be appropriately processed and stored.

Sometimes anxiety and depression have memories or difficult experiences feeding them; sometimes, the child may have negative thoughts about things that are not objectively “real” but nonetheless feel intensely real in the child’s experience. The way that EMDR mimics REM sleep not only causes negative memories to become less painful, but negative thoughts to become less potent and positive thoughts to become more powerful. EMDR can help with specific anxieties (about school, social situations, separation difficulties, etc.) or specific depressors (grief, bullying, constant stress, etc.), but it can also help with more general anxiety and depression as well. Cognitive therapy, a modality that works to identify negative thoughts and replace them with more true, helpful thoughts, can also be a viable option for easing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies that compare EMDR and Cognitive therapy have shown that while both modalities are viable options in treating anxiety and depression, EMDR tends to be a quicker treatment option.

EMDR harnesses the brain’s God-given design to help children process through challenging memories and thoughts. It takes the feelings of panic or sadness associated with memories or thoughts and decreases them to a manageable level. Negative thoughts are not merely replaced by positive thoughts in a cognitive sense, but the child is able to internalize the positive thoughts and feel the truth of them on a heart level, too.

A child that comes to therapy for EMDR would first start to establish trust with the therapist, learn EMDR coping skills, play feelings games, and learn how their thoughts can affect them. The child and therapist in cooperation with a child’s parent would work to create an appropriate treatment plan, identifying specific memories, places or negative thoughts to target. With this groundwork established, the EMDR desensitization to process the anxious or sad memories or thoughts can 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 either a memory, a place, or a negative thought is then set up which includes the worst part of the event, negative belief about the event, and emotions caused by eliciting the memory or thought. 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 through things causing anxiety or depression and in turn create more adaptive thoughts they truly feel about themselves instead.

Anxiety and depression can be challenging and heartbreaking and can cause difficulty in daily functioning. If your child is experiencing one of these, EMDR may be able to help them process and find relief from their struggle. 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 and cope in more positive ways, so that they can enjoy positive relationships and activities with more control over their reactions to life’s 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 has been with ALCS since 2019 and counsels clients from our North Austin location. She works with children, adolescents, and families to help them heal from attachment issues and trauma. For more information about Hannah's practice, click here. To set up an appointment with Hannah, call us today!

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