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Treating PTSD in Children in Just a Few Hours

Treating PTSD in Children in Just a Few Hours

Children and teens with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be successfully treated with only a few hours of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) or cognitive behavioral writing therapy (CBWT), according to a new study by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and GGZ Rivierduinen (Trauma Center for Children and Youth).

PTSD is a psychiatric condition which can develop after exposure to a traumatic event. Symptoms may include severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, irritability, hostility and depression.

Previous studies have shown that EMDR can successfully treat PTSD in adults, but until now, strong evidence for the efficacy of EMDR in children has been lacking.

For the study, researchers compared the effects of EMDR with those of cognitive behavioral writing therapy (WRITEjunior) in 103 children and teens aged eight to 18 who had experienced a single traumatic event, such as a traffic accident, rape, physical assault, or traumatic loss.

Both forms of treatment approach the traumatic memory without any preparatory sessions. In EMDR, the traumatic memory is activated while the child’s working memory is occupied with an external task (following the fingers of the therapist with the eyes).

In writing therapy, the child writes a story on a computer (with help from the therapist) about the event and the consequences, including all the horrid aspects of the memory. In the last session, the child shares the story of what happened with significant others.

“EMDR and writing therapy were equally effective in reducing posttraumatic stress reactions, anxiety and depression, and behavioral problems. What’s more, both proved to be brief and therefore cost effective,” said lead researcher Dr. Carlijn de Roos, a clinical psychologist.

“We literally used a stopwatch to time the length of both trauma treatments. This showed that EMDR reaches positive effects fastest (2 hours and 20 minutes on average) compared to the writing therapy (three hours and 47 minutes on average). The most important thing, of course, was that the results were lasting, as shown during a follow-up measurement one year later.”

Research has shown that about 16 percent of children who are exposed to trauma develop PTSD.

“Children who do not get the right treatment suffer unnecessarily and are at risk of developing further problems and being re-traumatized,” said De Roos. “The challenge for health professionals is to identify symptoms of PTSD as quickly as possible and immediately refer for trauma treatment.”

She added that screening for PTSD should become standard practice within the field of childcare for all disorders.

“’When PTSD is determined, a brief trauma-focused treatment can significantly diminish symptoms. A brief treatment will not only reduce suffering by child and family, but also lead to tremendous healthcare savings.”

It is important to conduct follow-up research into the effects of EMDR and writing therapy in children with PTSD symptoms who have suffered from multiple traumatic experiences and in children younger than eight, De Roos said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Source: University of Amsterdam

Treating PTSD in Children in Just a Few Hours

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Treating PTSD in Children in Just a Few Hours. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.