EMDR Therapy for Teens

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is trauma therapy that can help teens process and heal from a traumatic memory. Originally developed to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), EMDR differs from more traditional forms of talk therapy. It’s believed to work by helping the brain reorganize how memories are stored to reduce the impact they have on one’s life. 

For teens dealing with trauma, EMDR can be incredibly powerful. Dozens of studies support EMDR’s efficacy in treating emotional trauma — and several suggest it may offer faster results than other types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Continue reading to learn more about EMDR for teenagers — how it works, why it’s important to consider, the benefits it can offer, and what to expect. 

How Does EMDR Work for Teens?

EMDR helps teens with PTSD process a difficult, traumatic memory in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. While we don’t fully understand exactly how EMDR works, it’s widely accepted that there’s an exposure component involved that lends to the efficacy. 

EMDR happens in 8 stages and involves tapping and bilateral stimulation in eye movement to help users work through a painful, traumatic experience. The outcome is a desensitization to the discomfort past trauma inflicts.

Why EMDR for Teens?

EMDR can be effective for anyone who’s experienced an intense traumatic event or tried cognitive behavioral therapy for teens without getting the results they want. For teens especially, EMDR can have incredible outcomes. 

Tailored for adolescent experiences

Part of EMDR’s success is likely because the therapy is completely tailored to each individual’s experience. For teens, this can be critical in getting buy-in and engagement, both vital components to treatment success.

Developmentally appropriate

EMDR is developmentally appropriate for teenagers, especially given their sensitive and vulnerable psyche that hasn’t yet mastered how to manage emotions and feelings. Rather than dredging up painful memories week after week in sessions — which is the stereotypical therapeutic experience — EMDR takes a different approach to treatment. It’s active, engaging, and meets teens where they are developmentally. 

Evidence-based effectiveness

One study found that after just 6 weekly sessions, 61% of teens no longer met the criteria for a major depressive disorder (MDD) diagnosis. Another study, though small in scale, found that teenagers with depressive symptoms saw total remission after participating in EMDR treatment. 

Benefits of EMDR for Teens

EMDR is an evidence-based form of therapy proven to offer significant benefits to teens who use it to heal from a traumatic event. It can improve relationships, grades, self-esteem, the ability to focus, and more. This type of therapy for teens can also help with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions related to a traumatic experience.

“Of course, EMDR has a range of positives for teens, but overall, bridging that gap often associated with trauma and how it is stored in the body can be a freeing and healthy experience that can help increase emotional fluency.”

– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C 

Reduced symptoms of trauma

EMDR for teenagers reduces symptoms of trauma, according to some studies. It can eliminate the instinct to be in a constant state of fear or worry about danger. It’s also known to help combat self-destructive behaviors, like abusing alcohol or engaging in acts of self-harm. 

Improved emotional regulation

Studies suggest EMDR might be a successful way to treat emotional dysregulation in some people. The research found that participants saw a significant decrease in emotional regulation difficulties after seeking treatment. 

Enhanced coping skills

Part of EMDR treatment focuses on teaching teens coping mechanisms and tools that help them manage triggers in the future — especially when they’re outside of sessions. With these coping skills, teens feel more confident in their daily lives and interactions. They’ll slowly begin to trust that even if they encounter an experience that might have set them off in the past, they’re equipped to deal with it.

Increased self-esteem

Multiple studies have shown that EMDR can positively impact low self-esteem. Some research suggests it might even be more beneficial than cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and it’s been found significantly more effective in improving behavioral problems in teens and children. 

“EMDR can be authentically empowering for teens in building self-esteem and, of course, confidence. Though even if trained, it will take some time to build a rapport and a solid therapeutic alliance that can support beginning this type of work with a developing teen.”

– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C 

Decreased anxiety and depression symptoms

While more research is still needed, some studies suggest EMDR might be a feasible treatment for long-term depression, which is known to be highly prevalent in trauma survivors. Some research shows depression is 3 – 5 times more likely for people with PTSD, which can result from trauma. 

Better academic and social functioning

EMDR can treat symptoms that interfere with academic progress and achievement or social interactions, improving a teen’s life in multiple ways. EMDR helps teens learn to focus on tasks and find success in school. It also helps them feel confident enough to engage in social functions and events again. 

Improved relationships with family and peers

A significant component of EMDR involves learning to trust again. Teens who use EMDR often make great strides in their relationships with family, peers, and social circles as they create meaningful, healthy bonds with others. 

What Teens Can Expect in EMDR

Knowing what to expect before engaging in any type of therapy demystifies the process and helps teens feel secure. Fortunately, EMDR is a very structured, well-defined process that ensures anxious teens can deal with their trauma in a safe place.

Initial assessment

The initial assessment — or “history taking” — helps EMDR therapists learn more about a teen’s past experiences so they can understand the history of the trauma. Here, specifics about memories or experiences will be shared. 

Establishing trust with the therapist

Healing can’t happen without trust between a teen and their therapist. Spending enough time together to build that rapport is crucial. It establishes sessions are a safe space where vulnerability can be welcomed and the healing process can unfold.  

Explanation of the EMDR process

Gaining a complete understanding of the EMDR process is crucial for teens and their families. Knowing what to expect can significantly reduce or eliminate the fear of the unknown, making the therapeutic journey more comfortable and effective.

EMDR therapy is a structured program that unfolds over multiple sessions, typically spanning weeks or months, depending on the individual’s needs and progress. The process is designed to address and alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories through a phased approach.

Preparation phase

During this initial phase of EMDR, teens will prepare for the therapeutic journey ahead. This preparation involves not only understanding what EMDR is and how it works but also gaining access to guided stress management tools. 

These tools are designed to help manage any anxiety or distress that may arise, both during and outside of therapy sessions. Examples of such tools include:

Deep breathing exercises: Guided exercises that help regulate breathing, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety.

Progressive muscle relaxation: A technique that involves tensing and then slowly relaxing different muscle groups in the body, which can decrease physical tension and mental stress.

Visualization: Guided imagery practices that encourage teens to envision a calm, safe place, helping to foster a sense of peace and safety.

Mindfulness meditation: Techniques that focus on being present in the moment without judgment, which can help manage and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

These tools are an integral part of the preparation phase, equipping teens with effective strategies for managing stress throughout their EMDR therapy and beyond.

Desensitization phase

In the desensitization phase of EMDR, specific techniques are utilized to help teens disassociate from their trauma and any identified triggers, effectively training the brain to process these experiences differently. This critical step allows for the reduction of emotional distress linked to traumatic memories. 

Examples of these techniques include:

Bilateral stimulation: Often the hallmark of EMDR, this technique involves guiding the teen to follow a therapist’s hand movements with their eyes back and forth, while recalling the traumatic event. This can also be achieved through auditory tones or tactile taps alternating from left to right, helping to activate both hemispheres of the brain and aid in the processing of trauma.

Dual attention stimuli: This approach combines focusing on the traumatic memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation. The dual focus helps diminish the emotional impact of the memory over time.

Sensory grounding exercises: Techniques that help teens stay connected to the present moment during the recall of distressing memories, reducing the intensity of emotional or physical distress. This can involve mindfulness practices or physical grounding techniques, such as holding onto a textured object.

Through these desensitization techniques, teens learn to process and reframe their traumatic experiences, significantly reducing the emotional charge associated with these memories. This phase is essential for weakening the power that traumatic memories hold, paving the way for more adaptive understanding and integration of these experiences.

Installation phase

In the EMDR installation phase, therapists guide teens to transform harmful thought patterns into positive beliefs. Unlike replacing trauma memories, this phase focuses on changing how these memories are perceived and reducing their emotional grip. The essence is to shift from disempowering thoughts (e.g., “I am powerless”) to empowering ones (e.g., “I am resilient”). This reinforcement of positive beliefs helps teens reframe their traumatic experiences, fostering a stronger, more positive self-view and diminishing the trauma’s impact.

Body scan

Body scans are a vital part of EMDR therapy, enabling teens to become aware of their body’s responses to trauma. Instead of answering questions or conducting a physical exam, a body scan involves a guided mental review of bodily sensations led by the therapist. Teens are asked to mentally note any discomfort, tension, or other sensations in different body parts, from head to toe, without judgment.

This technique aims to identify physical signs of stress or trauma, such as tightness or pain, enhancing mindfulness and connection between physical sensations and emotional states. Through this mindful practice, teens learn to recognize and articulate how their bodies hold onto and react to traumatic memories, facilitating a holistic approach to healing. It’s about awareness and sensation, helping bridge the gap between mind and body in trauma recovery.


Closure is precisely what it sounds like. It helps teens release the effects of their trauma until their next EMDR session. Therapists often guide teens through specific calming or grounding exercises. These techniques are designed to help them “close” out the session feeling secure and contained, preventing the session’s intense emotions from overwhelming them. Therapists will also ensure that teens have coping tools to help them navigate any issues that come up in between sessions. 


The reevaluation stage is the final part of the EMDR process. It assesses the efficacy of treatment and determines whether future sessions are still necessary. 

This stage typically occurs at the beginning of a new session, where the therapist reviews the teen’s emotional and psychological state since their last meeting. It involves assessing the effectiveness of the previous sessions in alleviating the symptoms of trauma and determining if the treatment goals are being met. If issues persist, or if new challenges have emerged, the therapist may recommend continuing with additional EMDR sessions. Conversely, if the teenager has shown significant improvement and stability, this phase might lead to a conclusion of the therapy or a transition to less frequent maintenance sessions. 

A final follow-up session, even after substantial progress, helps ensure that improvements are sustained and addresses any late resurfacing of issues.

Find a Teen Therapist Specialized in EMDR

EMDR therapy for teens has a unique ability to heal and transform traumatic experiences that interfere with daily life and relationships. From a tailored approach that resonates with adolescents to the proven benefits research shows it can offer, EMDR may be vital to your teen’s healing.

If you’re wondering how to help a teenager with mental health issues, Talkspace can provide support. Talkspace provides access to convenient and affordable online therapy for teens where they can get the help they need at a time and place that fits into their lives. Reach out to Talkspace today to learn more about EMDR for teens.


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