Background: Practice guidelines for childhood posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recommend trauma-focused psychotherapies, mainly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a brief trauma-focused, evidence-based treatment for PTSD in adults, but with few well-designed trials involving children and adolescents.
Methods: We conducted a single-blind, randomized trial with three arms (n = 103): EMDR (n = 43), Cognitive Behavior Writing Therapy (CBWT; n = 42), and wait-list (WL; n = 18). WL participants were randomly reallocated to CBWT or EMDR after 6 weeks; follow-ups were conducted at 3 and 12 months posttreatment. Participants were treatment-seeking youth (aged 8–18 years) with a DSM-IV diagnosis of PTSD (or subthreshold PTSD) tied to a single trauma, who received up to six sessions of EMDR or CBWT lasting maximally 45 min each.
Results: Both treatments were well-tolerated and relative to WL yielded large, intent-to-treat effect sizes for the primary outcomes at posttreatment: PTSD symptoms (EMDR: d = 1.27; CBWT: d = 1.24). At posttreatment 92.5% of EMDR, and 90.2% of CBWT no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. All gains were maintained at follow-up. Compared to WL, small to large (range d = 0.39–1.03) intent-to-treat effect sizes were obtained at posttreatment for negative trauma-related appraisals, anxiety, depression, and behavior problems with these gains being maintained at follow-up. Gains were attained with significantly less therapist contact time for EMDR than CBWT (mean = 4.1 sessions/140 min vs. 5.4 sessions/227 min).
Conclusions: EMDR and CBWT are brief, trauma-focused treatments that yielded equally large remission rates for PTSD and reductions in the severity of PTSD and comorbid difficulties in children and adolescents seeking treatment for PTSD tied to a single event. Further trials of both treatments with PTSD tied to multiple traumas are warranted.