EMDR Can Help Teens With Stress

What Do Veterans and Teens Have in Common? Both benefit from EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is the top mental health treatment recommended by the Veterans Affairs for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD).

Studies also demonstrate its effectiveness with developmental trauma caused by difficult childhood events (sexual, physical, emotional abuse, neglect, high conflict parental divorce, grief and loss).

EMDR has been heavily researched in randomized, controlled studies and outcomes are impressive: in one study, 90% of single incident trauma victims were free of PTSD symptoms after three (3), hour-long sessions of EMDR (PTSD-Repository).

What people do not always realize is that EMDR is effective for treating mental health disorders other than PTSD; a growing body of evidence points to EMDR helping with anxiety, panic attacks, depression and stress in general.

Used in conjunction with other evidenced based treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR is a powerful way to help tweens and teens recover from stress overload.

The Stress of Everyday Life as A Tween or Teen

As the parent of a tween or teen, you probably know this story well: your tween or teen comes rushing down from their room in the morning lugging a huge backpack (one that no human should have to carry unless out on a trail at least five days), and shouts “where’s my [cleats, tennis racket, swim goggles, running shoes, etc.] and in the same breath, barks at their sibling: “you ate all the [whatever the most sugary cereal in the house is]!”

Their lives are busy. Between extra-curricular activities, socializing, chores, homework…there’s a lot going on.

And this is good; an important aspect of positive mental health for tweens and teens includes being engaged in a variety of activities that increase their sense of independence, personal responsibility, and confidence (see my blog post Building Positive Mental Health With Your Tween or Teen).

The flip side is this: You might be observing that your tween or teen is harried, hurried, and at times overwhelmed to the point where their stress level impacts their daily lives.

For more on how our body’s nervous system responds to stress, check out my blog post here: Don’t Tell Me to Breath! How Parents of Teens Can Help Lower Anxiety In Their Kids.

In it, I talk about how, for young people today, the stress of everyday life is compounded by existential threats like global warming and the Covid 19 Pandemic.

Existential threats cause us to question the very foundations of our lives and whether it has any meaning, purpose, or value.

Think about the impact of this: our tweens and teens sometimes do not see a real future for themselves. And oftentimes things that could buffer them from prolonged stress responses, are in of themselves, triggering.

For example, social connectedness is a vital protective factor for positive mental health in tweens and teens–they need friendships and connections with others outside of their immediate family in order to do the important work of defining their identity, values, and future desires.

But much of this socializing happens over social media, which can become a trigger for feeling isolated (“everyone else is having more fun than me”), bad about themselves, and misunderstood.

Or even attacked: According to a 2022 Pew Research Center report, nearly half of teens said they had experienced cyberbullying (via texts, social media, or other digital means) within the past year (see Teens and Cyberbullying 2022).

I’ve said it before and will say it again now: young people are dealing so much these days and it makes sense that rates of depression and anxiety in teens are increasing at alarming rates.

The Physical, Emotional, and Mental Impacts of Stress

What does it look like when your tween or teen is more than just a bit stressed and has moved into the zone of having an activated nervous system that is impacting their daily functioning? How do you know if they could benefit from EMDR therapy? Be on the lookout for some of these changes and behaviors:

  • Social isolation
  • Changes in grades
  • Stopping activities that they previously enjoyed
  • Somatic complaints like stomach aches and headaches
  • Panic attacks or complaining of feeling like they can’t breath
  • Feeling so stressed or worried that they can’t focus
  • Being hard on themselves about mistakes to the point of perseveration
  • Avoiding people or activities while also feeling left out or lonely
  • Getting sick frequently
  • Sleep problems; complaining that they can’t fall or stay asleep because they are worrying too much
  • Low motivation or finding it hard to get started on things
  • Self harm including picking, cutting, and risky behavior

These signs and symptoms could indicate that your tween or teen is operating continuously from a flight or fight stress response and may need help learning to re-regulate. EMDR can help with this.

What Is this EMDR Thing Anyway?

The developer of EMDR, Francine Shapiro (Doctor of Psychology), sort of ‘stumbled’ onto the realization that eye movements reduced the impact of distressing memories: As she walked one day in Central Park, Shapiro noticed that eye movements had a desensitizing and calming effect on her.

She wondered whether this happened for other people and started experimenting with using back-and-forth eye movements, where the client followed her finger with their eyes while processing specific memories, thoughts, or experiences.

Further research showed that eye movement is one way to help people process disturbing memories stored in the body, not the only way. Tapping on the client’s legs or in their palms, having them hold special buzzers, even self administering rhythmic shoulder taps can have similar effects.

Some say that Shapiro came to regret naming the approach EMDR, because the eye movement part of the treatment is less essential than rhythmic movements utilizing both sides of the body (a fancy term for this is bilateral stimulation).

Walking, dancing, running, bouncing on a yoga ball, listening to music–the REM portion of the sleep cycle when rapid eye movements occur–these are ‘natural’ ways humans have found this positive effect outside of the therapy room.

EMDR relies on a model called Adaptive Information Processing, which states that the human brain stores uncomfortable or traumatic experiences differently than it does ‘normal,’ everyday experiences and memories. These traumatic experiences get ‘stuck’ (or unprocessed) and linked with other maladaptive memories, so that the person develops negative core beliefs about themselves and the world.

An example of this might be when a tween or teen holds a core belief about themselves that goes something like: I’m gross or weird, there’s something wrong with me.

This negative core belief might be associated with recent experiences of being made fun of at school by other students for how they look. When asked about another time they felt this way, the tween or teen might identify that every time they are around their loving, yet judgmental grandmother, they also feel this way.

The therapist would guide them to think of an earlier time when they remember this feeling until a target map, which goes backwards in time to the earliest memory is created.

The tween or teen would then be asked what belief about themselves is more true, or that they wish they believed. This might sound something like: I’m amazing and brave. Body sensations and emotions are identified and then bilateral stimulation is used to process the memories while replacing them with new positive beliefs about themselves.

What Your Tween or Teen Can Expect From An EMDR Session

EMDR is one therapy technique that can be utilized in combination with other approaches. And, although it follows a very scripted protocol that helps maintain the integrity of the approach, EMDR can (and should) be adjusted for individual client needs.

With this said, there are eight clearly defined phases of EMDR:

  1. History Taking
  2. Preparation
  3. Assessment
  4. Desensitization
  5. Installation
  6. Body Scan
  7. Closure
  8. Reevaluation

I won’t take space to describe each phase in-depth here; there are many sources on the web that do that already, just google the eight phases of EMDR and you will find lots of information.

For our purposes here, I want to describe more specifics about what might happen during an EMDR session with me.

Building Rapport and Safety
First of all, we start with spending plenty of time building comfort, rapport, and safety before processing any disturbing or highly charged memories.

The first three phases of EMDR focus on completing a really thorough history taking, practicing ways to ‘contain’ information or memories that are too emotionally charged for processing at that moment, and creating a clear assessment so that target memories are defined.

This all occurs before any bilateral stimulation or direct processing of disturbing memories and thoughts.

This concept of building resources and going slow to go fast is essential. Even if your tween or teen has not experienced what would be considered a ‘big T’ trauma, but instead, is stressed out and worried for what may seem like no reason, chances are that there is some very emotionally charged material impacting their core beliefs about themselves and the world.

For example, perfectionist-like tendencies might show up as stressing over mistakes and avoiding new experiences. This perfectionism might be tied to a belief about themselves that they are not good enough, that no matter what they do, it’s never enough.

Where this comes from might not be trauma in the classic sense of the word but still, is linked to early life experiences that were unsettling, stressful, and even disturbing. Processing these events takes courage and a strong therapeutic alliance. The tween or teen needs to know that I am there to support and guide them as they look at painful aspects of their early life, their family of origin, and themselves.

Being able to be this vulnerable is dependent on establishing a strong sense of rapport and trust within the therapy room.

Art and Games
I also use fun, interactive methods for building distress tolerance skills and identifying emotional triggers.

For example, I often have clients construct a ‘container’ that can be used to hold memories and disturbing material that we are not ready or prepared to process. The only ‘rule’ is that the container must have a lid of some sort that can close. We’ve had a lot of fun building containers and drawing them out on paper.

Games are also an important way to make EMDR effective for younger clients. Increasing a tween or teen’s ability to tolerate strong emotions is an important aspect of EMDR preparation.

To do this, I like to use mindfulness activities like tossing a ball back and forth or eating a delicious piece of chocolate very slowly while paying attention to all the sensory details.

We often play a board game called The EMDR Journey Game, which guides tween and teen clients through the EMDR process in a fun, interactive way.

Future Rehearsal Template
I sometimes use an activity from EMDR called a Future Rehearsal Template, where the young person visualizes themselves doing something very stressful or challenging, like giving a presentation, running a race, taking a test, talking to or interacting with a person they find challenging and then identifies the positive belief, body sensations and emotions they want to have during this future moment. With this exercise, we build a sense of self competency that carries over to future events and stops young people from feeling stuck in a cycle of reliving past failures or difficult experiences.

Get Started

EMDR is proven to be successful in healing past trauma as well as treating anxiety and depression. If you are a parent of a young person who is stressed out, struggling to participate in daily routines, and is often overwhelmed by negative thoughts and beliefs about themselves, I can help. And, if you are a parent who knows that your tween or teen would benefit from processing past traumas, I am also here to help. I would be honored to guide you and your tween or teen on a journey to healing.

Follow these steps to get started:

  1. Get to know more about me here.
  2. Use the convenient online scheduler to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation.
  3. Schedule your first appointment and begin watching your tween or teen heal!