Making a Safe Space for Ducky

     “Trauma informed practice implies that we empower, support adaptive coping skills, and see individuals as capable of not just surviving, but also thriving.”

 – Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D, LPAT, LPCC, ATR-BC, REAT

At Hope’s Place, our therapists understand the importance of “trauma-informed” practice. Trauma doesn’t only impact a child’s behavior and mood – it literally changes the brain. As trauma informed counselors, we know that trauma can shut down the language center of the brain. That means TALKING about what happened is nearly impossible and that is why we use art and play so much. Folks, young and old, who have experienced trauma, are often functioning more from the right hemisphere of the brain, so they need to be engaged “where they are”. And so we marry creative, expressive art with evidence-based therapy.

One of my favorite trauma informed activities was presented in a conference by Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, one of the leading experts in trauma informed art therapy. Taking a directive approach, the therapist provides a wide range of craft supplies such as tissue paper, chenille stems, foam sheets, stickers, feathers, Popsicle sticks, toothpicks, glue sticks, and strings. The client is given a rubber duck and a paper plate then directed to create a safe space for the ducky to live. As they create this space, you ask questions about who this duck is and why they need help creating a safe space. This exercise allows a child to project any feelings about safety and security, or the opposite, through the duck. I’ve watched some children spend 10 minutes on this project, tops, and move on to the next thing. In comparison, I’ve also seen kids spend hours fencing in their duck’s space, using jagged toothpicks and layers upon layers of “barbed” wire, never completely satisfied that the duck will remained unharmed. It doesn’t take a mental health professional to understand that these particular children could be projecting feelings of intense insecurity and impending doom based on their experienced trauma.

The duckies I’ve met have needed protection from other bully ducks, scary crocodiles, swamp monsters, Mommy and Daddy ducks, ducks on drugs, crazy uncle ducks, demons, snakes, etc. It was a profound moment when I was working with a young child who was protecting her ducky, Princess from being killed. She spent so long wrapping her duck and making a soft bed of feathers, pompoms, and tissues that I thought surely she was finished and began the process of wrapping up our session. “No, no!” she exclaimed, “I’m not done! She needs one more thing!” Imagine my astonishment when she grabbed a business card from my desk and placed it in her ducky’s home. She made her duck safe by giving it a Hope’s Place card. She equates Hope’s Place to a safe place; a place that helps protect children.

What an honor and privilege to be a part of her healing journey. Would you like to be a part of that journey too?


Mandy Leach-Justice, M.Ed., LPCC