Trauma | EDMR

Human beings of all ages can experience scary moments that leave our bodies, minds, and hearts unsure if we will be okay. Sometimes, it’s hard to know how the things that happen in our children’s lives affect them. The reaction to trauma can be really confusing, and the parents who come to me for the scary stuff say “nothing has worked”. This is because when something scary or traumatic happens to a person, it can stay in their bodies and minds. It affects how they feel in the world and interact with the world.

I hear parent’s confusion when they say, “but they were only 6 months old”, or “they are too young to understand”. But trauma sits in our bodies. It doesn’t move into the talking parts of our brain and work its way out. Trauma and its symptoms are usually experienced in body sensations (fear, feeling spacey, body complaints). And before the age of three, children don’t yet have the brain structures developed to organize traumatic experiences so they get stored primarily in the body or in our “felt sense” of safety.

Children who experience trauma can sometimes show delays in their development, as well as experience physical and emotional effects. (complete change in personality, or interests, nightmares, problems sleeping or with eating, anger, lack of attention, self-blame). If your child has been through a traumatic event, what makes all the difference is the safety and quality of attention that important caregivers can provide (especially when you too may feel traumatized).

Examples of traumatic experiences:

  • Hospitalization or painful medical procedures
  • Separation from a parent due to adoption, death or divorce
  • Abuse
  • Witnessing a parent abuse substances
  • Neglect, poverty and toxic stress
  • Witnessing a trauma or a death
  • Being involved in an event such as a major car accident or natural disaster
  • Healing from enduring emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Witnessing family violence
  • Intergenerational trauma - effects on parenting

“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It's the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
- Dr. Bessel van der Kolk

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): is based on Francine Shapiro’s adaptive information processing (AIP) model and is effective for resolving symptoms caused by disturbing, difficult, or frightening life experiences. EMDR helps process the troubling thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are disrupting daily functioning.

EMDR is based on the adaptive information model (AIP). The AIP model believes we have a built-in information processing system in the brain that gets blocked when a traumatic or adverse event occurs, causing the event to get stuck or locked in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings and body sensations. An individual may become activated with these pictures, thoughts, feelings, and sensations when there is a reminder of the traumatic event. EMDR therapy assists the individual by helping the brain reprocess these traumatic memories, and as a result reduce emotional distress.

EMDR can also serve to soften or desensitize "parenting triggers" and re-pattern the nervous system for attuned and responsive parenting. (For more information, please visit the EMDRIA website.)

EMDR Therapy With Children

When yucky stuff happens, we start to carry around a heavy bag of mixed-up feelings and mixed-up thoughts. When we are so busy carrying around these bags, we have less room in our lives for the good feelings and good thoughts. EMDR can help children make the bags they are carrying smaller. When a child receives EMDR, they follow their counsellor's fingers as they move to the right, then left, causing their eyes to move back and forth while thinking about the yucky thing that happened to them. This is something that happens naturally when we sleep at night and dream which is also called REM sleep. Therefore, we can wake up feeling differently about experiences from the day before that were upsetting us when we went to sleep. Other times, EMDR can look like tapping on your knees back and forth, drumming, marching, or holding ‘Tappers’ that vibrate from one hand to another. With children, EMDR gets playfully integrated as the yucky stuff comes up in the playroom.

EMDR-Sprinkled Play Therapy

Prescriptive play therapy for trauma involves a phase-based approach where the activities within the playroom may vary from less directive to more directive play, with the goal of supporting trauma work. Trauma-informed prescriptive play therapists guide play in the avenues that will support trauma digestion and emotional regulation. Integrating play therapy within Francine Shapiro’s adaptive information processing (AIP) model with a flexible approach to the EMDR protocol holds tremendous promise in using play to enter the memory network and promote healing.

Parent-Child EMDR

Traumas that have not healed in this generation have the potential of being passed into the next. The sense of self in any child does not develop in isolation; in fact, it develops in the parent-child relationship and other important relationships early in life. We came to this world to connect with others and when these connections do not happen or they happen in a way that hurt us or injure us, our sense of self often gets altered and disconnected.. In many cases having the child as well as the parent receive EMDR therapy (together or separately) may be recommended for best results. Sometimes the parent may be highly traumatized by living through the traumas of their children and the healing needs to take place in both the child and the parent. Sometimes because of the parents’ early experiences with their own parents, they may have difficulties setting boundaries with their kids, or they may be overprotective, neglectful, abusive, too distant, or too intrusive. Parents' emotional problems can affect their children’s emotional, physical and psychological development. For instance, a parent with depression, without knowing or intending to, may neglect their child’s needs for connection and love. This can result in having a child with emotional and behavioral problems.