Integrating play therapy and EMDR with children


Play therapy and EMDR are two powerful methods of therapy for children independent of each other and have proven to be helpful in assisting children who have experienced traumatic events in their lives. A working definition of trauma needs to address both single incident trauma vs. repeated traumas and be measured, by the child by intensity, frequency and duration. A thorough parent or legal guardian report/intake is necessary too but no one can measure the effect of other people's trauma, not even parents, so the child's responses provide the ultimate key to the process. Simply put, there is single-incident or devastating trauma and/or repeated, even ritualized trauma that occurs for days, weeks, or even years—that weave themselves into a child's sense of identity so deeply that utilizing all methods of helping the child process traumatic events need to be available to the clinician. Although the structure may remain essentially the same, each child's process is entirely unique. The interplay of child-directed play therapy and therapist-guided EMDR is like an infinity symbol that involves balancing the interplay of opposites; specifically, the two hemispheres of the brain. Combining the two dynamic methods of play therapy and EMDR offers children ways to process both experientially and cognitively according to their developmental ability. The therapeutic relationship provides a container for holding the child's intense feelings. This relationship becomes the safe, creative, and effective bond that allows the processing of feelings and confronting cognitive beliefs that cause misery and anxiety to the traumatized child. There are many similarities and differences if one compares and contrasts the dynamics of play therapy with EMDR. EMDR is a more cognitive approach while play therapy tends to be more experiential in nature although both appear to positively and directly affect a child's negative cognitions, beliefs and themes. Themes are important in both experiential play therapy and directive play therapy and appear often as targets within the EMDR process. Children's themes reflect back to the adult world what their experience in life is like, what issues they struggle with, and essentially reveal the effects of trauma on their minds, hearts and souls. Children can be absolutely poetic, absolutely raw in their response to trauma. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)


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Victoria A. McGuinness

Original Work Citation

McGuinness, V. A. (2011). Integrating play therapy and EMDR with children. In A. A. Drewes, S. C. Bratton, and C. E. Schaefer (Eds.), Integrative play therapy (pp. 195-206). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc. doi:10.1002/9781118094792.ch11



“Integrating play therapy and EMDR with children,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed January 21, 2021,

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