What On Earth is EMDR?

As I attempt to describe EMDR, I find myself fumbling and being unclear. Today I’m boiling it down to something short and easy to grasp. While this is still a work in progress, I offer my simple explanation.

When our children experienced traumatic events in their early lives, the memories were stored in their brains.  They were not cognitively processed or healed.

Now when challenges come, those early memories affect the way our children respond.  EMDR stimulates the brain to reprocess the memories and replace them with positive and true beliefs.

EMDR Stimulates the Brain to Reprocess Memories

This reprocessing is done through bilateral stimulation using either eye movement from side-to-side, taps on one side then the other, or even “buzzies” – small objects the child holds in their hands that vibrate, alternating right-left-right-left.

During this stimulation, the therapist guides the child to briefly focus on the traumatic memory and then helps her to create new associations and positive beliefs.  Where she may have believed, “I am in danger/unloveable/worthless,” she embraces a new truth, “I am safe/loveable/precious.”

Let me illustrate.

I know this sounds odd, but hang on.

Yesterday Kalkidan came home from school and wanted to make a snack.  She loves to cook and when she discovered leftover potatoes and chicken in the refrigerator, she wanted to saute them in olive oil and spices. Since she was cooking a large quantity of food, I mentioned her siblings would enjoy some as well.

This kicked-off an hour long “discussion” about the fact that there was not enough food for all of them. She was too hungry and needed to eat all of it. They didn’t need food and she did, and on it went.

She was certain she was “starving,” and in a very real way, she believed it to be true.

It doesn’t take a stroke of brilliance to recognize these thoughts and accompanying feelings are rooted in the extreme deprivation of her early life.  But try as we might – for over five years – we have not been able to conquer the deep fear that there will never be enough and she will always be close to starvation.

New neural pathways are formed.

EMDR stimulates the brain to process these painful memories and create new neural pathways within the memory network.  We hope that through EMDR, Kalkidan’s deep and literal fear of hunger and starvation will be replaced with the knowledge that there is enough food.  She is not competing with her siblings for survival.

This desperate battle is deeply rooted in our children’s brains and it is about far more than food.  Abuse and neglect have a pervasive effect.

Despite our best efforts to demonstrate our children’s safety and security, the sense of being in danger and needing to protect oneself is as instinctive as breathing in and out.

Our hope is that this therapy will heal Kalkidan’s deepest wounds and we will move together toward wholeness.  We pray Kalkidan’s core beliefs will be replaced with the truth that she is precious to God and deeply loved by Him, and she is precious and deeply loved by us.


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Paula Miles Spears
    September 13, 2012

    And it WORKS. I am praying and hoping it works for Dimples, too.

  2. Brianna
    September 13, 2012

    Lisa I'm praying for you all as you head to Nebraska. God bless you guys!

  3. Laurel
    September 13, 2012

    Great example/analogy. Thanks.

    When you first mentioned it, I did do a bit of research to find out what it is.

    Praying that this brings the healing that you so desperately want and need for your precious daughter.


    Laurel 🙂

  4. Harmony
    September 13, 2012

    My nephew had this done for some learning difficulties he has and it made a world of difference. Really hoping and praying this is a healing step in your journey.

  5. Denise
    September 13, 2012

    I have a foster son (soon to be adopted) who does EMDR here in Nebraska. I wonder if you will be going to our same center. The change in his thought pattern surrounding some of his major trauma as well has some lesser things has been astounding and fascinating. Praying for you as you make this journey!!

  6. Kiely
    September 13, 2012

    One of our adopted children is doing EMDR with a wonderful therapist at NTAC. They have an awesome approach. I am very encouraged by the progress we are making. Praying for you and your family as you make the journey to our great state.

  7. Amy
    September 13, 2012

    Praying for her little heart. My daughter sadly knows the feeling of hunger, too. The kind of hunger that leaves an imprint on your brain. Oh, these kids with such broken hearts. I thank the Lord that we have found a wonderful therapist, too. It sounds like you are on the right path. Praying Dimples tender heart will be healed and she will know and understand how deeply she is loved.

  8. Beth
    September 14, 2012

    Praying for Dimples and for you. EMDR was profoundly helpful in overcoming poverty-related trauma sustained during my childhood.


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