From EMDR sceptic to convert: Shining the spotlight on Joanne Morris Smith
I think that it would be fair to say that without Joanne’s drive, enthusiasm, energy and commitment to the development of EMDR with children and adolescents there might not be so many thriving EMDR C&A Committees across EMDR Europe!Mike O’Connor former EMDR Association President
Joanne Morris Smith is arguably the doyenne of EMDR with children and adolescents (C&A) across Europe. She has shaped the understanding and application of EMDR therapy for the younger generation over more than two decades and as we celebrate 20 years of the Child and Adolescent Section Committee in November 2022, we would like to recognise her unique contribution over the years through her relentless dedication to improving the lives of young people. She spearheaded the development and teaching of the Developmental Protocols now used by Child and Adolescent practitioners and consultants throughout continental Europe and beyond.
How it started
In the early 1990s Joanne worked at the Royal Free Hospital (RFH) in London with children with autistic spectrum condition (ASC). An opportunity to work with the renowned child psychiatrist Dr Dora Black (also at RFH) arose and Joanne took it. Dr Black specialised in working with children who had experienced traumatic bereavement. Joanne quickly realised that from a psychological perspective the trauma of everyday life experienced by ASC children was not dissimilar to the major traumas experienced by the new young people in her care. The work was the same: creating adaptive narratives and restoring the joy and spontaneity to their play and ultimately their lives.
In these early days knowledge of trauma therapy was harder to come by. She made frequent visits to the centres of excellence in the US where she presented at conferences and made connections with the clinicians and academics working in them; and in doing so began to hear of EMDR and its “life-changing” outcomes. Her place of work had become the National Trauma Stress Clinic and it seemed a good time to learn how to do EMDR. She signed up for the Level 1 training with Roger Solomon and the EMDR Child Workshop with Bob Tinker in Bergen, in 1996, enticed by the location (but not the cost) and the opportunity to “debunk the whole thing”. She recalls her initial disbelief in how this therapy could work and spent the training sessions asking challenging questions. The demonstration cases shown on videos she assumed to be performed by actors, even the children. The intial training was followed by a presentation from Bob Tinker whose creativity and sincerity seemed to spark Joanne’s interest more, to the point where she felt compelled to try EMDR out with a young client even though she did not really know what she was doing. When it worked she was a little surprised and recounts wishing she had spent more time focusing on the content of the initial training.
Back in the late 1990s Joanne was instrumental in bringing together EMDR clinicians in the UK & Ireland and in Europe who were using EMDR with children & adolescents. So few people were working with this group that it was relatively easy for Joanne to share her experiences and support others. She organised supervision groups in different parts of the UK and Ireland and as the millennium came to a close she formed a special interest group at the Association of Child Psychology and Psychiatry to develop the knowledge base of EMDR. This group of clinicians is now The Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH). ACAMH sponsored the first child focused EMDR conference (in the world) and it was organised by Joanne and held in London in 2000 featuring keynote papers from Bob Tinker and Ricky Greenwald. Joanne remembers presenting a paper on pre-verbal memory. It consisted of two cases and was highly controversial at the time as babies were neglected in the trauma field on the grounds that the absence of language meant that they could not be traumatised. The Association published an occasional paper of the papers presented at this conference in 2002 edited by Joanne.
In 2002 Joanne was asked to form the Child and Adolescent Section, now the C&A Committee. This was an important step in recognising the need to give a voice to those clinicians who were using EMDR with children and we like to think we continue to do so 20 years later.
Joanne was an advocate of the need for a Developmental Model for C&A and the protocol that arose is based on Piaget’s developmental model. This was necessary because young people live in the context of a family and are not isolated problems. Affect regulation and cognitive ability develop dependant on attachment with trustworthy adults, and children are vulnerable to the workings and interactions of the system around them.
Spreading the word
Joanne’s work was published in 2013 in” EMDR for the Next Generation” co-authored by her close working partner Michel Silvestre (Morris-Smith & Silvestre, 2014). Michel notes that he was always impressed by Joanne’s commitment to EMDR, her knowledge of children’s psychopathology and her energy to develop EMDR therapy for children. She certainly needed this energy because it has not always been easy to have the children’s voice heard in the world of EMDR for adults. Michel attributes the recognition of EMDR child training and the child practitioner certificate and consultant accreditation to her passion and determination. He says “she doesn’t let go when she believes in something!” Joanne, it does seem, has an intuitive aspect to her valued clinical work. Michel recalls the process of writing together for their book and the routine they developed. He would say “Joanne explain why you are doing this or thinking this way” and she would reply “I don’t know, it just comes to my brain”. Clearly the discussions and apparently ‘good dinners’ over many months enabled the answers to be written on paper.
Joanne was the Chair of the EMDR UK & Ireland C&A Committee from 2002-2008. During that period she was very active in promoting EMDR with children, supporting the development of local EMDR Support and Supervision Groups across the country and organising training events with speakers from the United States and Europe. From the beginning there has always been a representative from the C&A Committee on the EMDR UK Board. Of course, during this period she was also promoting the need for Specialist EMDR Training for clinicians working with children and adolescents and together with colleagues in Europe, developing a curriculum for EMDR child training.
Although Joanne stepped down as Chair of the EMDR UK C&A Section in 2008 she remained an active member of the C&A Committee until 2018. She still works daily with traumatised young people but in a way that she hardly recognises from the early days. “The CBT element has largely gone” she said “and the EMDR element is so integrated and natural that it’s difficult to identify the process unless I come off auto-pilot”. Joanne went on to say that the current challenges are around ASC (she was credited by Francine Shapiro as being the first person to use EMDR in ASC) and also around the effects of social media.
Colleagues praise Joanne
Many child trainers, consultants and practitioners from around Europe remember with fondness the meetings with Joanne and the encouragement she gave them to develop, present and publish their child focused work and to develop child committees and trainings in their own country. Ümran Korkmazlar from Turkey remembers fondly their first meeting In 1999, after there had been a big earthquake in Turkey. “The EMDRIA-HAP team arrived in Istanbul to teach EMDR on October 28th,1999. We met Joanne in that training. She was one of the facilitators and I was the participant. I immediately included EMDR in the group intervention method. Joanne encouraged and invited me to present these works at the first C&A EMDR conference in London the following year. I learned a lot from Joanne. She is a very kind, hardworking, productive, inclusive person. I am very glad that our paths had crossed. I would like to thank her for everything she taught me, and for all the support she gave me”.
Marie-France Gizard from France recalls how she was immediately won over by Joanne’s “beautiful, sensitive, fine and delicate teaching. You were authentic, sincere in your relationship with others. Since that day it has always been with great joy that I have followed your teaching. And this led me to invest in myself”
João Veloso and Luís Gomes remember the ability Joanne showed in being able to tune into the client, even when doing supervision, via the internet watching a video with no sound. “That´s when we realised that EMDR is not all about cognitions but also that Joanne knew what she was doing to the point she read the client even without having heard what she was saying.”Janka Ashford from Slovakia identifies Joanne’s professional side but also her human side, “how she is able to connect with people and for her huge heart and willingness to help. Joanne has been very supportive of child and adolescent EMDR in Slovakia, we very much felt all the way how she cares about us. To me, personally, Joanne is an important mentor. At my supervisions with Joanne, what I often hear and find freeing again and again is: ‘if you’re not sure where to start, ask the child, they know…’ And so I try. With a little Joanne on my shoulder”.
Joanne was too modest to say what her legacy would be. She said that she was often seen as a “rebel and a bit difficult”; labels that she clearly holds proudly. “Children have taught me everything I know. They know where to start when I don’t. They are very alone in their pain and by going in and joining them using EMDR we (the children and I) can change that. Work with them young and early even though our system does not promote that, and most importantly – don’t forget about the children!”
The tributes above paint a picture of a therapist who cares deeply about the young people she treats and passionately wants the best treatment for all children. Joan Lovett speaks for all of us when she says “Joanne has spent years promoting EMDR with children, and has certainly improved the lives of many. I appreciate and applaud her for generously bringing her contributions to so many”.
Joanne, we thank you for inspiring us and for your unrelenting dedication to EMDR and the children and adolescents it helps.
Morris-Smith, J., & Silvestre, M. (2014) EMDR for the Next generation – Healing Children and Families. ACPIL; 2nd edition.