How EMDR Therapy Can Be Helpful for Children

By Nancy Watson, LMSW

The process for doing EMDR with children is different than with an adult. Additionally, it can require more preparation than regular play therapy.

The memory won't go away, but we can understand it differently

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. It is used to reduce the power of traumatic memories, and can help with the mind and body connection. When EMDR therapy is applied, it helps the brain reprocess those memories, reducing the amount of pain associated with them.

This may seem odd to include in play therapy with kids. However, EMDR is a well-supported method of helping children deal with traumatic events.


EMDR involves connecting the positive thoughts in our mind with the negative thoughts. Positive thoughts might be, “I can do this” or, “I’m capable”. This allows us to stop the negative thoughts and focus on thoughts that make us feel hopeful and positive about ourselves. This is done by activating both sides of the brain through bilateral stimulation. In other words, having messages sent to both sides of the brain in turns. Examples of bilateral stimulation include tapping back and forth on knees or hands, using eye movements, sounds, or other methods.

There are some coping skills used in EMDR that can also be useful at other times. I often teach these skills to my clients, especially if I do not plan to do EMDR with them. This is because those coping skills work well. They include creating a peaceful place and visualizing a container.

The peaceful place gives the child somewhere to go mentally in a distressing situation. EMDR techniques help solidify this in the brain. The container is used to create something mentally where memories can be placed between sessions. As a result, the child can put upsetting things inside of the container until they are back in therapy. In session they are able to work on these things with the guidance of a therapist. EMDR techniques are also used with the container to ensure this is easier for the child to practice.


There are many different things EMDR can be used for with children. This includes single traumatic events, like a car accident, or recurring traumatic events, like bullying or feeling helpless. A therapist can help a child get into their window of tolerance while thinking about the feeling or event. This means the child needs to go back into the memory and feel what they felt at the time. However, you do not want the child to be so far into the memory that they feel like they are back in that time and place. “One foot in the present, one foot in the past” is a common saying in EMDR circles.

A therapist will guide the child through the memory or negative thoughts they hold, and help them to rewrite it. This doesn’t mean the memory goes away. It means that the child is able to understand it differently than before. Oftentimes when we are young, our brain doesn’t know how to understand information in a realistic or ‘common sense’ way. EMDR allows the child to understand what happened with focused facts. This allows the child to acknowledge that gray area can exist. Things typically aren’t just “black and white”. In addition, the memory may not be as vivid as it was before doing EMDR.


The process for doing EMDR with children is different than with an adult. Additionally, it can require more preparation than regular play therapy.

Safe Space

Making sure that a child feels safe and stable, especially in session, allows the child to be vulnerable. Being able to feel vulnerable allows the kids to explore the upsetting event without it being too overwhelming. It can also assist them in being less guarded about how they are feeling.

Having a strong attachment to at least one adult is also helpful. This allows the child to think about memories more easily. At times, kids need extra support in this area. This can also lead to a longer amount of time needed before being able to process the memories.

Attention Spans

Another difference is that kids don’t have the same attention spans as adults. Focusing on a specific memory for an entire session likely isn’t possible for them. Just like in play therapy, kids may need to switch from one topic to another, and take things in bits and pieces. More breaks are typically required than with adults. This could be taking time to play and get some space from the distressing memory.


Children may also need to do more hands-on pieces with EMDR than adults. This might look like using “buzzies”, scribbling, or physically making a container to represent their mental container. This can be helpful for them to use between sessions.

There are so many different types of therapies, and all of them are necessary because what works for one child might not work for another. Some children do very well with EMDR therapy, and for others sand tray is more beneficial. Make sure to ask your child’s therapist if you think EMDR therapy might be something helpful for your child.

If you are interested in getting your child in to see someone, reach out to Covenant Family Solutions. We have a lot of excellent therapists with experience in play therapy, EMDR, and other children’s therapies.

Please note, the information in the article above and throughout this website is not a replacement for personal medical advice. If you or a loved one is in need of mental health services, please contact us to request an appointment or reach out to your healthcare provider.

Nancy Watson, LMSW
Nancy Watson, LMSW
Nancy is a school-based therapist with experience treating those with Autism, anxiety, depression, and histories of complex trauma.
Nancy Watson, LMSW
Nancy Watson, LMSW
Nancy is a school-based therapist with experience treating those with Autism, anxiety, depression, and histories of complex trauma.

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