Safety, Connection, Competence: a New Way to be Compassionate

It seems like everywhere you turn these days, someone is talking about anxiety and depression in Utah. It’s a seriously troubling problem that’s left many of us heartbroken. Data gathered by the three Utah Valley school districts (Nebo, Alpine, and Provo) suggest that the number of kids who could be considered depressed is rising as much as 3-5% every year. That means that in 2011, about 13% of kids were depressed, and in 2017 it rose to 25%.

One of the biggest things we all want to know is why? What’s causing this? What can we point to as the source of the problem?

Since I started directing United Way’s new initiative EveryDay Strong, which is focused on anxiety and depression, I’ve been in deep learning mode from some of our community’s best care providers, including Dr. Matt Swenson, a child psychiatrist at Intermountain Healthcare.

Dr. Swenson tells me that when it comes to identifying what causes anxiety and depression, it’s complicated. We all want to put something in a category, but sometimes that’s not helpful. Being helpful and compassionate to a person with anxiety or depression is a lot more about identifying needs than identifying causes.

Here’s an example: when you’re facing someone you care about who’s in the middle of an asthma attack, a heart attack, or cancer, how helpful is that question about cause? If somebody tells you they’re having an asthma attack, do you say “How did you get that?” You don’t. You say “Can I help? How can I help stabilize your breathing?”

In order to figure out what needs an anxious or depressed child might be lacking, there’s a helpful framework that Dr. Swenson taught me to use called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You might remember this from high school or college Psych 101. The hierarchy lays out the idea that a person can’t focus on certain aspects of life until an underlying need is met. This is what it looks like:

Here’s a familiar example: if you’re dying of hunger, it’s pretty difficult to think about making straight As. But it even goes beyond basic needs. For instance, if your ten-year-old doesn’t feel safe telling you crucial information about himself, do you think you’ll be able to have a real connection with him? Or what if your teenager knows that if she gets good grades, her peers will make fun of her? Which path is she likely to take?

A lot of parents believe that they’ve got to train and motivate their kid and use carrots and sticks to mold her into whatever she’s going to become or to “make” her behave a certain way. “If she would just try or just put her heart into it,” they think, “if I could just motivate her, then everything would be perfect.” But where does that break down? When kids can’t.

Maslow’s pyramid tells us that just like a child who’s dying of hunger can’t think about becoming a classic pianist until he gets some food, a child who doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel connected, or doesn’t feel competent, can’t thrive and be on his best behavior until those needs are met. It’s not a matter of motivation.

What a person needs to be happy is the same as what they need to be resilient. It equals wellness. And it’s the beginning of overcoming anxiety, depression, and the other difficulties that so many of our children are going through.

I hope you will spend some time this week thinking about this pyramid. if I could magically wish something, I would wish for parents, on a daily or weekly basis, to look at their kids and ask themselves “how are my kids doing with safety, connection, competence? What can I do this week to help improve and facilitate their sense of safety, their connections, and their competence?” That is how you build resilience in kids.

United Way is on a mission to help every child in our community feels safe, competent and connected. To learn more, find us at, or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • tumblr
  • rss
  • pinterest
  • mail

Written by Michaelann Bradley

Michaelann Bradley is the Director of United Way’s EveryDay Strong program, a new initiative to help anxiety and depression among youth. She has also spent many hours volunteering at the Utah County Suicide Crisis Line, at Utah Valley Hospital as a spiritual care volunteer, and at middle schools as a motivational speaker. Her work experience encompasses a wide range of nonprofit management roles, including projects with former Provo Mayor John Curtis, Silicon Slopes, and Brigham Young University.