One of the characteristics of childhood is that at this stage we are especially vulnerable to certain situations that leave a strong emotional imprint on us.
Sometimes these kinds of experiences produce lasting discomfort and alter the child’s attitudes and behaviour patterns, becoming a problem. EMDR therapy is one of the ways psychologists can offer professional support in these cases, and on this occasion we interviewed an expert in the field to understand the use of this tool. She is Cristina Cortés, psychologist at the Vitaliza psychotherapy centre , in Pamplona.
EMDR therapy in children: how does it work?
EMDR therapeutic intervention for children is a way to help them integrate memories and emotions that are overwhelming to the youngest. In this interview with Cristina Cortés, from the Vitaliza centre, we will see what this type of therapy consists of and how it is used in a psychology centre.
What is, from a mental health professional’s perspective, EMDR therapy?
EMDR therapy is a trauma-focused therapeutic intervention recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its effectiveness. Clinicians quickly realised that it could be very useful in other situations and therapeutic contexts, as has been borne out by the research that has been carried out in recent years, with very promising results.
We can consider EMDR as a psychotherapeutic approach in the treatment of different and very varied emotional problems, always secondary to experiences that have overflowed or are overflowing in difficult moments of our lives and that end up appearing in the form of phobias, panic attacks, unresolved grief or post-traumatic stress derived from accidents, natural disasters, wars, unexpected deaths.
And from the patient’s perspective?
From the patient’s perspective, the use of eye movements or bilateral stimulation used in some phases of the protocol is noteworthy. Bilateral stimulation is a key element of the intervention when processing traumatic or disturbing memories.
What are the particularities of EMDR therapy applied to children? Is it more useful in this age group?
EMDR therapy in children and adolescents takes into account, above all, the maturative development of the child or young person, adapting to their maturity characteristics, as well as the age at which the traumatic or adverse situation occurred.
We must not forget that accessing these memories can activate status memories, which condition the resources with which we respond at that time, something that must also be taken into account when adapting the EMDR protocol appropriately. It is also very important to include the parents in the therapeutic process, making them participants in the evolution and improvement of their children and thus enhancing the connection and security they feel in the relationship with their parents.
From my perspective and clinical experience, EMDR is an intervention that facilitates therapy for multiple problems and difficulties throughout development. The development itself is a conquest of skills and resources that sometimes can overcome the child and more if the family system is going through different stress situations, losses, etc.
EMDR is a young therapy, and its application and adaptation to the child population is even younger. The clinical results in the child and youth population are good and the latest studies confirm this. Still, more research is needed. The EMDR Association Spain is participating in a study being carried out on the Family Experience Scale in childhood.
Specific training in EMDR in children and adolescents not only trains professionals working with this age group to use the developmental EMDR protocol and to adapt to the needs of the child in each phase of the intervention, but also helps any EMDR therapist working with a child or adult traumatic population to adequately manage the child states that may appear during the sessions.
What are the problems that parents find in the psychological development of their children and that, when they go to the psychologist for help, can give way to an EMDR intervention?
The most widespread difficulties that parents encounter during development are around introducing limits, dealing with temper tantrums, sleeping difficulties, handling nightmares and night terrors, and separation anxiety or bullying. Many of these are colored by the lack of time and the rush that characterizes us as a society and that inevitably exert so much damage on relationships, and especially on the attachments between parents and children.
In some cases, the difficulties are due more to the fact that the upbringing activates the parents’ models of education and attachment, and they revive as a background drumbeat their experiences in early relationships, thus conditioning their responses with their own children. In these cases, the intervention falls on the relationship, both on the parents and on the child.
In other cases, the child has experienced concrete situations where he or she has been overwhelmed with coping resources and the experience has generated an emotional impact from which he or she is unable to free himself or herself.
Can it be said that EMDR therapy helps to reconcile with certain contents of the emotional memory?
Yes, of course, emotional memory depends on our relational history and the situations of risk or danger that we have experienced or perceived. All of them can be processed through EMDR. We do not change the facts that overwhelmed us, but we do change how we face them, with a new and broader perspective.
EMDR therapy is increasingly being used to improve attachment styles. Research with adopted and foster children is beginning to show positive results. Specifically, at our center in Vitaliza, we are conducting EMDR research with children who have been abandoned early.
Likewise, research has been carried out with EMDR in Spain, with unaccompanied immigrant minors, which shows evidence of the reduction of symptoms after the intervention.
It may not be easy to make the little ones understand what this therapeutic procedure consists of. How do you explain it to them in Vitaliza?
Therapy with the little ones is introduced through play, drawings, sandboxes, puppets, stories, etc. Through these elements we will explain to them what the therapy consists of, how their brain and body have the capacity to digest memories that have remained somehow frozen and make them feel bad, how every night they, without knowing it, use the REM (Rapid Eye Movement), to try to digest those memories, and how with EMDR we are going to use those same eye movements so that those memories stop bothering them.
The picture story How can I get out of here? of which I am the author, has been one more way to explain and introduce EMDR therapy to both families and children. The truth is that, in general, they have no great difficulty in understanding it.
What are the first changes that children notice in their lives after starting EMDR therapy?
In general there is a reduction in symptoms; mood improves, sleep is better, optimism increases. It is curious, for example, how both the quality and the quality of the drawings improve. I love when they say, “that’s it, it’s gone…” it’s a way of telling us that what was hurting them has really stopped.