How EMDR is Beneficial for Teens with Trauma

Trauma can be a difficult experience for teens, causing many psychological effects and often interfering with their daily functioning. Fortunately, a variety of treatments have been successful in treating trauma and supporting a teen in getting well. However, one treatment for trauma stands out from the many types of talk therapy. Although talk therapy can be highly effective, this type of therapy can create healing in significantly less time than traditional talk-oriented therapies. EMDR has been shown to be extremely successful in treating trauma-related conditions.

What is Trauma?

An experience that is considered traumatic is one that threatens the injury, death, or physical integrity of an individual. It is usually accompanied by terror and helplessness. After the trauma has taken place, there is often a great deal of fear, anxiety, and worry that an individual experiences. Additionally, if there was emotional component to the trauma or a significant loss, healing from trauma can become more complex. For instance, if a teen was in a car accident, was injured, and also lost their best friend, overcoming that trauma may be more difficult. Furthermore, other factors, such as duration of the traumatic experience, how others responded to the individual after trauma, and whether the individual needed to keep the experience a secret can also play a role in the ability to heal from trauma. In fact, for some types of trauma, events that happened many years ago can continue to feel like a burden upon an individual’s psychological well being.

In one study, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital analyzed surveys from 6,483 teens and parents and found that 61% of teens (ages 13-17) had been exposed to at least one potentially traumatic event, such as those listed below, in their lifetime. And 19% of those teens experienced three or more traumatic events.

  • rape
  • death in the family
  • witnessing a crime
  • death or suicide of a close friend
  • domestic violence
  • natural disaster
  • witnessing violence
  • chronic bullying
  • repeated abandonment
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • car accident
  • school violence
  • experiences of war
  • acts of terrorism

Furthermore, as a result of trauma, it’s possible that mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, might develop. For these reasons, it’s important that teens get professional psychological support so that they can heal. In fact, the sooner a teen gets treatment, the more likely they are to recover in a reasonable amount of time.

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of treatment that specifically addresses the psychological and emotional stress that results from experiencing trauma. EMDR can facilitate a reduction of anxiety as well as a letting go of the past experience. This form of therapy can help a teen process the distressing emotions associated with the trauma and find a solution. EMDR can help a teen:

  • reduce anxiety
  • reformulate beliefs
  • reduce associated physical symptoms
  • process emotions associated with trauma

One of the benefits of EMDR over other forms of trauma-focused treatments is that it can create healing in a short amount of time compared to traditional talk-oriented therapies. In fact, research shows that EMDR has been extremely successful in treating trauma-related conditions.

What Does an EMDR Session Look Like?

When your teen is in therapy, a therapist who utilizes EMDR in their practice will likely provide your teen with instructions first. The EMDR session may last an hour long, and sometimes longer. Essentially, your teen will be instructed to begin talking about the emotional difficulty of the trauma while focusing on an external stimulus. Keep in mind that prior to beginning EMDR the therapist will have developed a rapport with your teen in order to help them feel safe enough to talk about the trauma. Furthermore, at the beginning of EMDR treatment, a therapist might invite the teen to talk about a part of the traumatic experience that feels okay to discuss, leaving more challenging parts for later sessions.

The stimulus a teen focuses on while talking can include hand tapping, audio stimulation, or lateral eye movements. In other words, a teen might be asked to focus on a pencil as the therapist moves it back and forth in front of the teen’s eyesight. The stimulation serves as a distraction. In this way, while a teen is talking about the trauma, any blockages they might have to the trauma might be removed. As a result, a teen might experience connection or insight about their experience. With the blockages removed, a teen’s natural healing processes can be restored and psychological healing can take place.

After two or three short periods of external stimulation, the therapist will stop and check in with the teen. Throughout the process, an EMDR therapist will monitor how your teen is doing to ensure they are moving through the process in a healthy way. An EMDR therapist is trained to look for signs that indicate the experience is going well or not. After the external stimulation, the rest of the session is focused on supporting the teen integrate any emotional releases, insights, or connections they had during the process.

Is EMDR right for my teen?

EMDR can be the right treatment for any teen who has experienced trauma. However, it will be up to the EMDR therapist to determine when to begin to use EMDR in session. In other words, it may take a few weeks to help the teen feel comfortable, to build rapport, and to get to a point when EMDR feels safe enough to use in session.

Why is Healing Trauma so Important during Adolescence?

Teens are at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood, and susceptible to emotional upheaval, confusion, and turmoil. Their emotional and psychological foundations are already shaky. For this reason, if a teenager also experiences trauma, he or she might be vulnerable to mental illness.

Furthermore, symptoms of trauma stress can get in the way of a teen’s functioning well in school, at home or work, or in any extracurricular activities. There might be a drop in grades, unhealthy family interactions, or a loss of interest in social activities. Considering the already shaky psychological ground that comes with adolescence, the effects of trauma can become debilitating for a teen.

How to Seek out Professional Support

To help your teen heal from trauma, seek out professional assistance immediately.  Perhaps find a mental health clinic in your community, or talk to the mental health professionals at your teen’s school. You might also call a psychologist or therapist in private practice in your community. If you have an interest in having your teen see an EMDR therapist, visit the EMDR International Association and use their directory of therapists.

Remember that trauma can have lasting effects on a teen’s psychological development and functioning if not addressed right away. If you’re aware that your teen has been through trauma, seek out professional support today.