Jan 10

Intermountain Moment: Safety first! Working with trauma-affected individuals



Safety. It’s something that many of us take for granted. But for many of the clients Intermountain works with, and especially the trauma-affected children that come to us in our residential program, safety is certainly not a “given.”


While it may seem odd to those who have not experienced childhood trauma or adversity, an individual who felt unsafe as an infant or child can have a disruption in their relational, physical, and emotional development that inhibits their brain’s ability to accurately interpret their world. Stress hormones can flood their brain and send them into a state of re-traumatization (sometimes referred to as “being triggered,” but it’s more like a switch has been flipped or the floodgates on an emotional dam have been released!) that makes it impossible for them to engage in higher level thinking tasks while in that heightened emotional state. Everything in their brain is telling them they should rightly fear for their life and either run, fight, or shut down (“play possum”) in order to survive that moment.


What might set of a state of re-traumatization differs from individual to individual based on their experience. The response that care givers, friends, family members, and hopefully faith communities can react with is to establish felt safety. This can be hard to learn, as those who are re-traumatized in the moment and are feeling unsafe often express it in unsafe ways! This, in turn, can cause those of us caring for these individuals to feel unsafe and have our own fight-flight-freeze response. Only by being consciously aware of our responses, taking a moment to regulate ourselves, can we then provide a response that will communicate safety and calm to the re-traumatized individual we are seeking to help.


When seeking to establish or re-establish felt safety it is important to remember a few things:


1. “Felt” safety is just that… Ask, “What is going to FEEL safe to the individual?” This is not the time to argue or convince… remember the individual is not in command of their executive functioning or reasoning skills anyway! Telling someone, “You are safe… no one is trying to hurt you!” is not as powerful as checking your posture, your tone of voice, and the setting to see what can be done to communicate safety.


2. Understand that when someone is traumatized or triggered, their responses will be more “all or nothing”; extreme; black or white; friend or foe. They may not even be seeing you as the “safe person” you are, but rather might be seeing you as their abuser. Do not take offense! This moment will pass.


3. Give simple, direct instructions… one at a time. Your anxiety in the situation may lead you to want to give more than one instruction at a time or pile on words (that’s what I tend to do!). So, an example would be: “I can see something has upset you… please take a deep breath with me.” Repeat that as many times as needed to get them to slow down and take a deep breath. Taking deep breaths is a scientifically proven way to help move someone from the flight-flight-freeze response to a more regulated position from which they can be calmed and reasoned with. If you are curious about why that is, you can read more HERE. After you get them to take a breath, then you can continue with other simple, direct instructions related to safety.


I have found that having to step in for a child to help them regulate from a re-traumatizing experience is almost always embarrassing for them, bringing up a sense of shame or brokenness. As ML Rutherford suggests in the video above, ultimately that child or individual you are working with will thank you for demanding that they be safe and that you ensure a safe environment be present for them, as well. This might involve certain structures in place or circumstances that apply to them that don’t apply to other children. If these requirements always relate back to safety (especially that FELT safety, remember!) and don’t appear arbitrary or punishing, these limits communicate the LOVE we want to express to those who are trauma-affected.


Ultimately, as ML says, these children (and older individuals!) will thank you for your care and understanding of their needs. And, if we can teach them self-awareness about how they can establish safe boundaries for themselves and the ways they get “triggered” and can either prevent or move through those events, we will have brought a greater sense of healing and wholeness to them that gives them a sense of dignity and ownership of their emotional world.



Dec 18

FREE resource! Children’s Object Lesson for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Objects needed: A jump rope.
Theme/Main Idea: God keeps his promises, and that should cause us to jump for joy!jumping-rope

“Have you ever been so happy that it was hard to hold it in? Yes? What are some of the reasons you have had to be happy?

[let children share]

Wow! Those are great reasons to be excited and happy. Now, I am wondering if anyone here can tell me, without using a word, that they are happy? Can someone here act out being happy for us without shouting or making any noise?

[as time permits, let a few children ‘act out’ their expressions of happiness]

Amazing, you guys! I could tell that each of you were happy and you didn’t have to say a thing. But, I suppose I should get on with the object lesson… what do you think? Would you like to see what I brought today? Yes… okay. Here is it!

[take out the jump rope]

I suppose you all know what this is? Right. It’s a jump rope. Do you know why I have a jump rope? It has something to do with our lesson from Luke, chapter 1 today. It’s the story of Mary, just pregnant with Jesus, visiting her relative, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary calls out to greet Elizabeth, the baby inside her jumps for joy! Even still inside Elizabeth, waiting to be born, John recognizes how important it is that Mary is going to be the mother of Jesus.

Incredible, isn’t it? Elizabeth certainly thought it was. She made sure to tell Mary that the baby in her jumped for joy. There was a lot of joy and anticipation coming before that first Christmas morning. I hope that we can hold on to some of that excitement, too, and even let our bodies express it. Maybe thinking about how amazing it is that Jesus was born to show us God’s love makes you jump for joy, too? I sure hope so.

We are so close to Christmas! Part of the joy of celebrating comes not only from the gifts we think we are going to receive, but also from the gifts we give and are excited to see others get!

Let’s pray:

“God, thank you for the best Christmas present we could have ever received: the joy that comes from knowing Jesus. Help us express that joy with our bodies, with our faces, and with our generosity towards others. Bless our efforts to be a light in the world, extending your grace and love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Key Text:  Luke 1:39-45 (NIrV)

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in Judea’s hill country. 40 There she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside her jumped. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she called out, “God has blessed you more than other women. And blessed is the child you will have! 43 But why is God so kind to me? Why has the mother of my Lord come to me? 44 As soon as I heard the sound of your voice, the baby inside me jumped for joy. 45 You are a woman God has blessed. You have believed that the Lord would keep his promises to you!”

Dec 10

Chaplain Chris’ curriculum, “Bruised Reeds & Smoldering Wicks” is now bigger and better!

I am pleased to announce that a NEW, 8-week version of the study, “Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks,” is now available. Two additional weeks of materials have been added to address caring for adults who are experiencing trauma and a “where do we go from here?” lesson on implementation and strategic next steps for congregations seeking to be trauma-informed.


You can order the second edition of the curriculum by clicking HERE.

I am indebted to the over 100 congregations, homeless shelters, small groups and various ministries across the United States and Canada that engaged with the first edition of the materials. Their feedback and encouragement has hopefully made the second edition better and more comprehensive. I am thankful for those who are willing to explore these issues within their faith communities and I praise God for what that might mean for so many that have yet to find a church or fellowship that welcomes them as they work through their trauma story.

Some of those who used the first version of the curriculum volunteered to provide not just their feedback, but a short testimonial as to how they used the curriculum in their context and how they found it helpful:

“I am using it in a bible study for women living in a local shelter.  It has been very well received and the women have been interested to learn about ACEs and how Jesus interacted with those who have been through trauma… thank you for developing this study!”Deb Bishop, Orange City, Iowa

“Everyone, and I mean everyone, has really enjoyed the Bible studies… Our discussions have been rich, edifying, encouraging, and life-giving. Thank you so much for this wonderful work. More people need to experience it!”Dr. Stan Sonu, MD, MPH; Grady Memorial Hospital; Emory University School of Medicine

I give my highest recommendation of the Bruised Reeds & Smoldering Wicks adult study.  Each of the six classes provided valuable information about the importance of trauma-informed ministry.  In addition to learning more about compassionate care, I found the scripture, readings, short videos and discussions very uplifting to me personally by enriching my Christian faith.” Suzanne Mannix, Mental Health Advocate; Helena, MT.

“For a church that has been hosting an open community meal for years, this curriculum was an excellent first step toward a deeper understanding of how we can best love all people who walk in our door. Even those whose life experiences make them prickly or distant. It was a real launching point in the reshaping of our ministry together.”Jacqui Buschor; Columbus, OH

“The curriculum gave us a biblical framework that allowed us to address ACE’s with our congregation.” – Pastor Donald Spachman, Greenville 1st United Methodist Church; Greenville, Michigan

“The Bruised Reeds study was recommended to our church by a mental health professional who is also a Christian. We had already been learning about the scientific studies and medical evidence that have caught up with what God has already told us in His Word. Our faith is strengthened as we move forward in creating a new trauma-informed environment at our church… We participated in this study as a pre-cursor to starting a new ministry. The leaders have announced a fellowship meeting that will take place … and we invited all the people who expressed an interest in finding support at the church.”Heather Halverson; Annandale, VA.

Dec 07

From our children: a Christmas & holiday thank you card to our supporters!

As Intermountain’s chaplain, I have the opportunity to travel all across Montana (and sometimes across the country!) to share all that Intermountain is accomplishing in the lives of children and families we serve through your generous support. It’s an honor to be able to thank many of you in person as I visit your congregations and communities. It’s an advantage I have that our children don’t… to know many of you personally and to convey our heartfelt appreciation.

So, in order to express their gratitude, our children took some time in a recent chapel service to color, draw and write a few short messages of thanks. I took those pictures an scanned them into the “musical holiday/thank you card” you see below. We hope you enjoy it and share with others you know that support Intermountain!

Sincerely, Chaplain Chris Haughee


Dec 05

New Horizons back for another holiday concert for the children!

Nancy Trudell, Intermountain Board member, recently coordinated with Chaplain Chris to bring the New Horizons Community Band to chapel for a special holiday concert. This holiday concert was the eighth time that the band has been on campus to share their gifts with the children.

The band is made up of about 60 community members, from a variety of backgrounds, ages and experience who enjoy playing together. While not all the band members were available on December 4th, the turnout was VERY impressive… a clear indication, according to Nancy, that “the band members enjoy ourselves as much or more than the children!”IMG_2350 IMG_2351

The band played a number of holiday favorites as well as popular songs the children knew, including “Sleigh Ride,” which had the children looking around to see where the horse was (there is the “whinnying” sound of the trumpet at the end of the song, if you recall). After the concert, band members shared their instruments with the children for a musical version of a “petting zoo.” Band members took time with every child and showed them how their instruments worked!

Many of the children’s eyes lit up when they learned that they would get a chance to play trumpets, tubas, trombones, and other instruments. It was clear that more than a few of our children have a musical gift!

As you can see from the pictures to the left, the band enjoys getting into the Christmas spirit, and several members donned Santa caps and elf ears. I am so thankful to have groups like New Horizons Band that enjoy coming to campus and doing something special for our children.

Nov 28

FREE resource! Children’s object lesson for the first Sunday in Advent, Year C

The rest of our Children’s Advent Lessons (Year C) can be found by clicking this link!

Objects needed: A seedling, branch, or picture of stump/seedling/nursery log
Theme/Main Idea: Even when things seem hopeless, God gives us hope. When nothing is left of the tree but the stump, there is still life there… just waiting for the right season to spring up again.sprouts-out-of-the-tree-stump

“How are you this morning, children? Can I be honest with you about how I am feeling? I am a little sad… disappointed.

[what would be best here is for you to share a personal story about a time you felt let down… what I include here is for illustrative purposes]

I was really hoping that I had made a friend the other day at church. We made plans to meet for lunch, but when the day came, she said she had too much going on at work and had to cancel. I had my hopes up, and they just fizzled. So, I am feeling pretty low. Anyone else here ever feel that way?

Well, I guess I better get on with the lesson. You want to see what I have for the object lesson today? [let kids respond] Yes? Okay… here we go, I am so excited!

[pull out a seedling/stick or picture of a stump]

Isn’t it beautiful? [kids will likely give you puzzled looks] What? You don’t agree?

I think it is beautiful because I just read about what this means in the Bible… In Jeremiah, chapter 33, God promised a branch—or a little seedling—that would grow up and save everyone! Isn’t that amazing? I really like trees, and that must mean this will be an amazing tree!

Hmmm… you guys don’t look convinced. Do you suppose this is one of those places in the Bible where it’s like a word picture—and maybe God wasn’t really talking about a branch, a seedling, or a stump? I think that might be right, especially since this passage comes up on our first day of Advent.

Do you know about Advent? Advent means “the arrival of an important person or event.” It’s the start of the church year, and throughout the season of Advent we recognize the coming of Jesus as a baby. We celebrate that particular miracle on what day that is coming up? Do you know? [let kids respond] That’s right! Christmas! So, Advent is the time leading up to Christmas.

Well, with that in mind, let’s take another look at this promise of a branch that was going to come and save everyone.

Do you know what God was actually talking about? Or, maybe I should say… Do you know WHO God was talking about? [kids guess] That’s right… Jesus!

Jesus was the branch Jeremiah wrote about. That’s kinda weird, isn’t it? It gets a little less weird if you understand why God promised that branch in the first place.

Back then, the people of Israel were pretty discouraged. They had messed up big time, and they were suffering the consequences of some pretty bad choices. They had turned their backs on God and decided to do things their own way. It didn’t work out very well for them. So, like a big beautiful tree getting cut down, all of their amazingness of being God’s people was taken away. They had to leave the places they were living and go live somewhere else.

They were sad. They had gone from feeling like a big, important and beautiful tree to a lowly little stump. And, as they felt lowly like that stump, without any hope, that’s when God told them that out of that stump they had become a new tree would sprout! At first it would be so small, it would just be like a little branch coming out of the side of the stump!

Wow… incredible! When they felt their worst and felt like maybe God would just throw up his hands and be done with them, God gave them a promise. God told them that they would have a future leader, a great great great (you keep going on and on for a little while…) grandson of King David, who would help make them the type of people who are ‘right with God,’ close to him, and part of God’s family! That’s a wonderful promise to look forward to.

So, here we are in Advent, just starting out. Let’s remember how God kept his promise to send the branch—the seedling from the stump of Israel—known as Jesus, and that he still keeps all his promises today. In our own small way, we can help extend the hope that God gives us by supporting the work Intermountain does with kids and families. We’re handing out change cans today, and we’re hoping you fill them up between now and Christmas. You’ll hear a little more about Intermountain as we move through the Advent season. But, for now…

Let’s pray:

God, thank you for your presence in each of our lives. Help us remember the promises that have come true and those that will come true in the future. Give us patience to wait for all the good things you promise to those that love you and place their trust in you. Help us hold out for the best, YOUR best God—for us, and for our church and our community. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Key Text: Jeremiah 33:14-16, New International Reader’s Version (NIRV)

14 “The days are coming,” announces the LORD. “At that time I will fulfill my good promise to my people. I made it to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “Here is what I will do in those days and at that time.
I will make a godly Branch grow from David’s royal line.
He will do what is fair and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved.
Jerusalem will live in safety.
And it will be called
The LORD Who Makes Us Right With Himself.”

Nov 20

Continuing a tradition of giving: learning about tzedakah and assembling gifts for OCC

20151110_165028_resized_1Recently we participated in Operation Christmas Child with the help of donations that came from various sources. This marked the 20th year the children have had the opportunity to put together gift boxes for children in various places around the world. We spoke about how this gift might be the first gift some of these children would receive and how we can learn to be grateful with what we have been given, even if we know our lives are far from perfect.

Jewish mentor, Edie Kort, gave a lesson in the Jewish tradition of tzedakah–which means “justice” but refers to the act of charitable giving. The children were able to hear a story about how a little girl named Dahlia was able to get a BIG yellow comforter into a little tzedakah box! Of course, she was simply saving up her money to give to a charity, but it was a fun way to introduce to the children the concept of saving up so you could do good for another. After the story, Jim Nallick, our Jewish Educator, worked the children through an interactive exercise where they had to determine what the best way of giving charity is based on Maimonides’ “Ladder of Tzedakah.” In case you are wondering, the absolute highest form of charity is to get the individual established in business and be self-supporting, which comes from the verse:

“Strengthen [the poor person] so that he does not fall [as distinct from the one who has already become poor] and become dependent on others” (Leviticus 25:35).

Our littlest ones were able to grasp that it was far better to give charity without drawing attention to yourself (“That would be bragging,” said Macie) than to make sure everyone knew how important your act was. Overall, while some of our younger children struggled with the concept of assembling a gift for someone they didn’t know, and not getting a gift themselves, most of the children were really able to get into the spirit of giving. We prayed for the children that would be receiving our gifts, and each child took time to write a note of encouragement and friendship to the young person they assembled a gift for.

Isn’t it great to be reminded that even in the midst of very difficult circumstances, we can learn to be grateful and give to others something that might be an encouragement to them? Our children are an encouragement to me daily, and I hope that we can carry ourselves with the same attitude of selflessness and love that they are learning to express during their time at Intermountain. And, hopefully, in bringing healing through healthy relationships at Intermountain, we are helping children learn to be independent and faithful contributors to their families and communities–the highest form of charity!

Nov 14

How do you cope? Learning healthier ways at Intermountain

In a recent chapel time, our children were given the opportunity to “pay if forward” by helping create the video below. You see, part of the lesson was about thanksgiving and generosity, and that generosity is NOT just about sharing money. It’s about being the type of people who share compassion and the wisdom that has been gained through difficulty. The children were encouraged to know that they could help other children handle their big feelings in healthy ways by sharing what they had learned at Intermountain. Trauma-affected children come to Intermountain and learn skills that help them become more resilient and healthier individuals. They are comforted by healthy relationships, and can therefore comfort others. This concept of “paying it forward” is an old one, at least as old as these words from scripture:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. – 2 Cor. 1:3-6

So, as we enter this holiday season–a season that often brings up overwhelming emotions–how do you cope? If you’d like some ideas of how you can cope in healthy ways, watch the video our children put together and let us know what works for you! And then… pass it on!



Oct 29

Stories from chapel: Masks, Halloween, and hiding our true feelings

People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”

–1 Samuel 16:7

Every October, I have an excellent opportunity to talk with the kids in chapel about the masks we wear and how God sees through it all and sees who we are underneath the façade. The lesson usually goes something like this…

“One night every year in America, people encourage each other to put on masks and costumes and go around looking for candy by knocking on doors! Do you know what this night is called? Right…

On one side, the mask reads: (fake) happy, perfect, excited. On the other: suicidal, sad, mad, hurt

On one side, the mask reads: (fake) happy, perfect, excited. On the other: suicidal, sad, mad, hurt


These costumes and masks are a lot of fun. Maybe a little mischief gets thrown in… something gets ‘egged’ or a house is adorned with toilet paper. But, for the most part, these ‘tricks’ are accepted as part of the tradition associated with October 31st every year.

Now, take those same behaviors and those same masks and costumes and try wearing them around town a month later, you will receive a VERY different reaction. In fact, some people have gotten in trouble this fall for wearing clown costumes and trying to scare people. It usually ends up badly for everyone when a mask is worn at a time that is not appropriate. Here are some examples…

Besides Halloween, there are many reasons people wear masks:

  • So they can ‘get away with’ doing something they wouldn’t normally do
  • To hide who they really are
  • To be a part of the crowd… if everyone else is wearing a mask
  • For protection… from the cold, from germs, and other things

Okay… now that your imagination is engaged, it is time to switch gears a bit. Think about your heart rather than your face! How do we put ‘masks’ on our hearts? I am convinced that we wear masks on our hearts for the same reasons we wear masks on our faces!

What can start out as something we wear for protection, or to blend in with others, or to hide who we really are… well, those masks can become so comfortable that we never want to take them off.”

Then, we break from our discussion and the children take some time to draw out the masks that they see themselves wearing. One girl really used this lesson as an opportunity to open up and share some of what was going on for her beneath the surface. Her picture is used above… notice how one side of the mask shows her outward appearance: excited, perfect, and (fake) happy. But, amazingly, she trusted us to see what was going on just below the surface: feeling hurt, mad, sad, and suicidal.

Part of the work we do in chapel every week is to address the truths of God and God’s Word and how they can give our children the courage to step out from behind the masks and into who God says they are: wonderful, amazing, and capable children of God—with the right to be loved and to love in appropriate and affirming ways. Thankfully, this young lady was in a place where she could get the support she needed to handle the big feelings she had underneath her mask. She was able to hear clearly that God sees past the mask and sees our hearts. He knows our fear, our hurt, our sadness, our shame…



Oct 18

Intermountain Moment: Helping the trauma-affected child succeed at play, with Kathleen Slack, M.S.

Play time can be hard for any child, but is especially difficult for trauma-affected children. Children that have been affected by early childhood trauma and severe stress are often given any number of labels to describe the symptoms of that trauma or adverse childhood experience: PTSD, ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), and even RAD (Reactive-Attachment Disorder). Whether caused by early childhood trauma, adversity, or a physical and/or mental health issue, a child with special emotional needs struggles with playtime, especially that with peers.

Kathleen Slack, our K-3 Special Education Teacher at Intermountain’s Residential Campus in Helena, Montana, has a wealth of experience in helping special needs children work through the relational minefield that is playtime, recess, or unstructured play. Any church or faith-based organization that wishes to reach out to adoption and foster parents should consider these tips when helping children with emotional special needs in their community. Play can be a wonderful tool for building self-confidence and relational aptitude in little ones, so we want to set up everyone in our fellowship for success! Here’s what Kathleen suggests, both from the video clip above and from our conversations:

  • Let the child know what to expect. “Free time” might sound wonderful to us as adults, but the concept of unstructured free play can be paralyzing for the child that is afraid to misstep, has difficulty initiating conversation, or struggles with conflict. Until the child is comfortable making their own choices around play, suggesting two or three options gives the child the freedom within boundaries that will develop trust and security.
  • Let the child know where you will be and what they can expect from you. Sometimes what we take for granted as a given–“I will keep you safe and allow you to have fun.”–is very reassuring for a child from a trauma-history to hear. What are the physical boundaries (“We’ll be in this room, or in this fenced area, or on this playground equipment…”)? How long will play last and how will they know when it’s time to wrap it up? (“We have 10 minutes to swing or play in the sand-box, and I’ll let you know when there are two minutes left, and I’ll ring the bell when it’s time to line up to go back inside“). As the adult, you provide safety and security for the child. They need to “borrow” your sense of confidence to face the challenge of play and negotiating the expectations of peers. Keep your eyes open and your ears attuned to their play, so if they look to you to see if something is “safe” you can reassure them.
  • Consistency is very important. The anxious child can be made a little less anxious if she or he knows that the same routine is followed for recess, free play time, or game time in whatever setting they find themselves in. Visual schedules and charts for classrooms are helpful in this regard, as are routines for lining up or quieting down for transitions.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would encourage you to speak to the primary caregivers for the children in your community that might need a little help around playtime when they are participating in church or children’s/youth activities. They will be the experts in what can calm or sooth their anxious children, and you will honor them with your humility and willingness to learn from them!



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