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Supporting kids’ mental health: Kier Gaines on fatherhood, self-care, and social media

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From the decisions they make to the words they say, parents play a huge role in supporting their child’s mental health. Kids may not always be looking to their parents to be perfect or pillars of strength. But they are looking for healthy ways to cope when life treats them unfairly. So, it’s essential for parents and caregivers to make mental wellness a priority. 

This episode of The Opportunity Gap explores the importance of good mental health for kids who learn and think differently and their parents. Listen as Kier Gaines, a licensed therapist and digital creator, explains:  

  • The unique challenges of parenting and how it impacts kids’ mental health 

  • Social media’s influence on kids’ self-esteem and social interactions  

  • Ways parents can promote good mental health to their child 

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child.

My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host.

Welcome back, listeners. On today's episode, we'll kick off Part 1 of our conversation on the importance of mental health through the lens of Black fathers. We'll talk about the unique challenges parents of color often face and how these challenges impact kids. We'll dive into the world of social media and talk about how it influences kids' mental health. And we'll highlight resources that promote good mental health for kids and their parents.

To help me get into this, I want to introduce today's guest, Kier Gaines. Kier Gaines is a licensed therapist and public figure who uses his platforms to amplify the importance of mental health. He's inspired millions of people to be more proactive in their own journey and reframe the way they think about life and especially parenting. He's been a speaker at events — wait for this one — at the White House. At the White House. At the White House. Yes! And honored by Sterling K. Brown and Oprah Winfrey on OWN's "Honoring Our Kings, Celebrating Black Fatherhood."

Welcome to the show, Kier. It is so nice to have you here, brother. So nice to have you.

Kier: Appreciate you, man. Thank you for having me on.

Julian: An illustrious guest here. I don't know what we've done to deserve this, but I really appreciate you being here. As your biography shows, you've done a lot of powerful things so far. And, you know, we like to just kind of jump in and talk shop a little bit and hear from people and hear what their experience has been. So first and foremost, Kier, what's bringing you joy in your life right now? What's just giving you life right now?

Kier: I'm a huge football fan. And in football, whenever a player struggles in their first year, in the second year, once they start to grasp the concepts of the game, they always say the same thing. They say, "The game as starting to slow down for me." It's just like this clichéd thing that players say, and it's supposed to signify that this job used to be like drinking water from a fire hose and now maybe drinking water from one of those high-pressure hoses that cleans off a deck. It'd still knock your tongue backwards, but it isn't as bad as it was before. And I'm finding joy in the fact that I'm getting used to the more exhausting parts of adulthood and parenthood. I'm finding real happiness.

Julian: OK. All right. I love the analogy, too, now: as the game slows down for you.

Kier: As the game slows down for me.

Julian: So let's talk about that a little bit. So both of us are parents. Both of us are parents, right? And parenting, as you know, is a journey. And if I'm being 100 percent honest, it's a journey that comes without a manual, and there is no blueprint for it. For most of us, we just learn as we go.

Now, for myself, I grew up in a single-parent household. My father passed away when I was 7. And so Mom, shout out to Michelle Saavedra, you are the number one. She raised us up on her own. And I just remember she did everything she could to take care of us, but also prepare us for what was out there. And a lot of times things got a little difficult. And I know that stress is something that so many single parents carry, especially when it comes to the mental health of being a parent without a blueprint, but also doing it on your own.

When you were being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, you also shared that you, like I, grew up in a single-parent household. As we both have families of our own, can you talk a little bit about why it's so important for parents to take care of their own mental health?

Kier: Parenthood is such a consuming position. It was while watching my mom do every day by herself, because looking at it through an adult lens, I realize that my mom was depressed. And we know in the mental health field that depression and uninvolved parenting go hand in hand. So it's because parenting is such a consuming job and it's such a consuming ask, there are pieces of you identity that can get lost in trying to keep it up, in trying to do what you need to do to just make it from day to day. And it does adversely affect your kids.

But since people do change their entire identities because of parenthood, I don't enter that when it comes to the mental health space if I recommend that someone see a therapist or encourage someone to see a therapist, because it de-centers you. I'm not going to say, Julian, you could be a better father if you come to see a therapist. That's not the central piece. When you're a better you, by default you're a better father. So we say, Julian, I want you to come therapy so that you can be good for you. And then all of the people that are under your tree will eat all the fallen fruit. At least that's the big idea.

Julian: And I think about that. That can speak so much to so many other aspects of life, right? Like, if you yourself are mentally healthy, then all these other aspects of your life will start to fall in place. Those of us that are parents, especially because, like you said, so much of our life is consumed by that identity. And so I appreciate that. Appreciate that. You're saying it de-centers the identity of parent and focuses on everything that encompasses you as a person.

Kier: That's right. Take care of you, the person. And actually, I think there is — I don't know if it totally puts you in the mindset of centering yourself. I think it increases the likelihood that you'll be receptive to that mind state. Listen — me included. My daughter had a doctor's appointment other day. So did I. Guess whose doctor's appointment got canceled. Mine.

It's easy to preach that. But in all actuality, all of the stresses and the guilt-inducing responsibility of parenthood can make you self-sacrifice and self-abnegate sometimes. So something you got to constantly remind yourself of for sure.

Julian: I saw what my mom did for me and my siblings and how hard she worked, and how she made sure that we had what we needed. And when I got the chance to become a father myself, I said, I'm going to do my best to really do this thing right. It's a goal that we all try to aspire to.

But I wonder if I've been placing this pressure on myself, like this pressure that subconsciously it starts to bring in these feelings of, Am I actually doing this right? Am I actually a good father? And because I didn't have my own father around, I don't really have a clear model of what it was supposed to be. Can we talk a little bit about that pressure that sometimes we as parents place on ourselves?

Kier: Oh, man, it's the pressure. The pressure comes from larger society. The pressure comes from sociological best practices, right? We get pressure from comparing ourselves to our upbringings. We get pressure from contrasting and moving away from our upbringings. I grew up very poor and I don't wear that as a badge of honor. It's something I feel like negatively impacted me, and I do a lot to make sure that my daughters aren't in that situation. Probably sometimes overdeliver and do way more than I actually need to to meet their needs.

So when you take all those different angles that the pressure is coming from, you're not getting beat up, bro. You getting jumped, you know, by all these expectations. Some of the things that I do to counter that, because I do understand that as my reality, is I had to reframe my idea of comparison. I know we say comparison is the thief of joy, and sometimes it is. But comparison is also a really amazing tool to help you evaluate where you are amongst your peers.

I like to talk to my friends. Hey man, your kids doing this? And then when I hear other people respond, I feel a little more human. So my kid isn't the only one that doesn't flush the toilet. OK. I thought it was just me, dog. And then you continue to talk to people. You realize they struggle in their parent journeys, too. And humans, because we're such social creatures and because society sometimes is comprised of just made-up rules that we've just followed along for hundreds and thousands of years sometimes, we don't always know if we're doing a good job. And sometimes we need to see someone else struggle to have permission to be in our own humanity, you know?

Julian: And I think it's interesting that as Black men and Black fathers, there's a very unique lane in the parenting ethos, right?

Kier: Absolutely.

Julian: I hear that, you know, me and my boys, we go back and forth like same thing. We compare, am I supposed to do like this? Am I going too hard on them? Should I ease up a little bit?

Kier: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that.

Julian: Right. And even — and that's pressure, right? That's something that even above that's something that induces anxiety, too. And again, as society already has this very strong current of what the vision of a Black man should be, I'm always kind of balancing like, where do I fit in what that balance is. Is that something you experience too?

Kier: Oh, absolutely. Every single day of my life. I'm by definition, cisgender, six foot one, dark-skinned Black man. It's very easy for me to not say the right thing or for me to misinterpret my own understanding of something and alienate groups of people at one time, just from not fully understanding where I am or understanding the nuance or context in the way people talk and the way people identify, and the way people express their lived experiences. So I'm always really careful of that.

Julian: I want to transition over to social media, because that has been a big portion of your life recently. You have this incredible following on social media, right? 400,000 followers on Instagram, 50,000 on YouTube. Couple of years ago, you went viral for posting a very transparent video on fatherhood. Listeners, the link will be in the show notes, so please check that video. I watched it about six times. You received a great response from people. And I got to ask, what's it feel like to go viral? And were you surprised by the response that you got?

Kier: I was completely surprised, but it was beautiful. Came right after George Floyd was murdered. I think the world was in a place, our collective consciousness, to hear Black men another way, to hear about fatherhood in another way. And I think that the tone was different than a lot of content that talks to men.

We don't talk to men with warmth, and it's always very hustle culture. Go get it. You got to do this. And I mean, everyone sounds like a drill sergeant. And even though I get that's stereotypically how we think men connect to messages, we see that it ain't. We see that that does not work.

You work in the schools. You work with young boys. Even when they got those tough exteriors, you get them behind a wall and you start talking calmly to them, and you get to see a different person. In those boys, the only difference between them and the men that they'll grow into is a couple years' time and some experiences. They're the same person for the most part with very similar needs. So I think that's why the video hit like that. But I don't know — man, I ain't never expect all of this. You kidding me? And I didn't think anybody would care at all.

Julian: I guess I'm personally interested, like, what was the spark that told you you needed to start doing this? Like, where did it go from — you said you were an educator and you're now a licensed therapist. What made you decide to say, I need to get some content together, I need to get my thoughts out there?

Kier: It just felt good. It felt good. I started off doing fatherhood content, and in the process of that, in the process of this video exploding, I passed my licensure exam to become a therapist. And it just took me a while. I've always created content. I've been making content since 2000, 2001, on a big fat VHS camera with VHS-C tapes.

Julian: We're going way back. Was this MySpace? Or are we talking Black Planet?

Kier: Oh, we talking Black Planet, bro. We talking about MySpace top 8, yeah. We talking straight Black Planet and all those. But yeah, I just, I don't know. I don't think it was a singular thing that inspired me. I always liked to put my thoughts on tape, and I created — I got through this master's program and I started treating people and I started learning more about this counseling world. And there's so much information. You got degrees and stuff, academics. Academics will talk over your head all day "with a marginal propensity of the neurofibromatic." They love words and jargon.

Julian: $20 words. Those are the $20 words. You gotta break it down to the five sometimes.

Kier: Got to break it down to the five sometimes. Make change for me, bro. I don't care about — I don't care how smart you are. I just want to get better. So I was able to find a way to synthesize that. And here we are, three years and almost half a million people later.

Julian: You know the videos that you do and continue to do, they're dope, right? Like, they're just content that needs to be out there. And to me, it's content that is part of that better side, that positive influence that social media can have. As a father, as again, as an educator, I appreciate that. I like to see positive messages, thought-provoking work. But then there's also a lot of challenges that come with social media.

Now, as my role as an assistant principal in an urban high school, a lot of my day is consumed with conflicts that stem from social media: the chats, the group chats, all the beef that comes from the instantaneous sharing of things, the video, all of that — from bullying, altercations, the insecurities that students have because of what social media says. I'm interested to hear your take. As somebody who is a content producer of positive work out there, what is your take on the impact of social media on mental health?

Kier: Oh, well, social media, we know — I think what you just said, research is already back that all of the heaviest negative mental health outcomes have been linked to heavy social media users. Suicide ideation, anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia. You go into — social media can be linked to an increase in some of those conditions and outcomes.

But man, it also has so many positive aspects. We're social creatures. Social media is one of the most powerful tools in the world. You can figure out how millions of people think within a couple hours. You have access to so much data, you have access to so many tools and resources that can help you better your life. It's one of those things where I think social media exacerbates conditions that we already struggle with. I think that exists with a lot of things we grapple with.

If I'm self-conscious about myself being poor, my mind is likely to drift to content that will look at a lifestyle that I wish that I had, and start to unfairly compare myself. We here — we know all of the social media reoccurring things that we talk about. You're watching other people's highlights. People don't talk about their downside on social media.

But I don't know if people understand how incredibly curated the content is, and especially our children. And when they see that, they see the guy in the Bugatti who's 19 years old. Dude, you know, he is a one of a billion, but there's billions of people. And what if there are three of those guys on this kid's timeline? And now it's an overrepresentation of what exists in the larger world.

Julian: Well, I think what you did say, though, we're a tool. And I think for our listeners, understanding that aspect of it, that if we frame the phone, social media, the instantaneous communication, the technology as a tool, all right. Like it's not just the end all be all. If like anything the tool is used for a purpose, then that tool can be harnessed for positive or harnessed for a positive purpose. So I appreciate that part.

And, you know, again, as a parent educator, and I wonder, you know, for years, again, somebody who is a content creator, but somebody who also is a mental health specialist, do you have any concerns for your own situation as a parent? Do you have any concerns for how you're going to implement social media in your own household?

Kier: It's tough to safeguard your children when there's access, when they can have access to the internet remotely. But the best thing you can do to safeguard your children is to have open and honest and transparent conversations. My daughter's 5 right now, so the extent of her usage of social media, she plays Roblox. And sometimes we'll be on Roblox and there will be somebody who requests for her to be a friend. And we got all the parental settings on there that safeguards the kids as much as they can.

But I'll use that as an opportunity. Oh, who is this person? Do we know this person? Why don't we talk to strangers? What can happen if we talk to strangers? And we're not big on fear mongering in the house. Fear stops you from doing things, but not for a reason that is intrinsic to your understanding. You just know you're not supposed to do it. We try to explain it — like this is what can happen if you do this thing — and allow her to ask questions and feel comfortable coming to us asking questions.

The second part to that for me is my baby's 5, my oldest is 5, my youngest is 16 months old. And I remember when my my oldest was 4 months old, I was such a judgmental parent. "I'll never let my kid have a whole bunch of screen time." Or "I'll never let my kid eat snacks an hour before dinner." And all of my "I would never let" have become my "I allow far too often.".

So I don't want to — I'm not a John Wayne, two guns blazing, talking about what I'm not gonna to do when it comes to the internet. But my daughter understands what I do for a living. And with us, having a heightened level of visibility it's really important for us to talk about all of those fundamental ground rules of social media. For her, the one we establish right now, she watches YouTube. And we say, if there are no kids in the video, then you can't watch it. Because sometimes there's adolescents and pre-teens in this concert she enjoys, she's a really smart kid, but she's still 5 years old. We don't want her to be overexposed. So when she's on social media, we're in the background. When she's engaged, we're engaging too. Even if it's passively listening to the content she listens to it, and just having a level of involvement.

Julian: I love the idea of open communication and modeling how you're using social media with her so that she sees that example. This is how we can use it to benefit us. And again, that positive way.

Kier: Oh yeah, for sure.

Julian: Parents, we really want to protect our kids. That's something that going back to that — yeah, you know, that that vision of what parenting is supposed to be: keep them safe. And we don't want them to see violent videos or read cruel comments. We want them to be confident in the way they look. But the reality is we can't always control or monitor everything that they see or hear. Do you have any helpful tips or ways for parents or kids to engage in positive social media, like any specific tips that you could provide?

Kier: Yeah, I think it goes back to that open communication piece. That open communication piece and having — whenever kids come in to counseling, teenagers, I don't work with them very often. But when I do work with them, one of the most difficult things is having the parents understand there's a particular level of privacy that this young person enjoys while they're in counseling. And within that comes this unique power struggle. You know, the parent is the ultimate authoritative piece. I need to know every single thing.

And what we learn in therapy sometimes is that the way that the parent responds to things that make them uncomfortable or things that they don't want to hear dictates directly how open that child is with them. I'm not saying that it be easy. My daughter's 5. She tells me things that make me fly off the handle sometimes. I don't always do a good job of that, but I am always practicing getting better.

I use little opportunities. She told me something alarming. And I'm like, OK, baby, tell me more. I'm fighting it back. But it's important that she feels like she could be open and honest with me. We can't stop the bad things from happening, but we do have a solid foundation by which we can have almost any conversation for when those things actually do occur.

Julian: I think it's also about just making sure that you're very intentional about the accounts that you and/or your child are following, making sure to monitor which accounts they have. And just making sure that there's age-appropriate boundaries for what pre-teen versus a teenager might post.

Kier: I agree. Can I add something else to that? I think that's a really good point. Adding those boundaries and trying to stay consistent with them. Children, even teenagers, preteens, adolescents, these are individuals that took a brain that understood nothing and then learned language and then made use of it. They are very good at figuring out patterns. And when you're inconsistent, they'll see the pattern.

Sometimes we got a rule on the way to school. Sometimes my daughter can't have her app, but sometimes I'll break the rules. In therapy, we call it norm in the room. Norm in the room is when you walk in and there's a group of people and you let every — you let everybody know what the expectation is and what the boundaries are before you say a single word. You norm the rule. Everybody knows what they expect.

And you can norm your child in very similar ways. Whereas having the pre-conversation, hey, I'm going to let you play with your iPad today for extra hour or so because Daddy has to do ABC. That way, even though it's a deviation from the daily plan or from what you typically do, they have context as to why, you know, and it's not a complete disruption of the pattern of the rules that you establish. Because that consistency is key with kids, but it's very hard to keep up.

Julian: That's funny you say that. That's — my kids get a little bit of extra Netflix any time Dad is recording a podcast. So they get excited when it's Dad's turn to do the podcast is oh, we get a little extra Netflix today. But again, the pre-conversation, the giving the rationale and pulling the curtain past of your thinking so that there's that open communication between parent and child.

I want to just ask you a ton of questions myself because I think a lot of the conversation you can have for me will be helpful. But I appreciate just coming on and sharing your expertise, sharing your journey, sharing you know, who you are as a person. And I just want to personally thank you for joining me today.

Listeners, before we go, I want to share some resources that promote good mental health. We'll also linked to them in the show notes. Kiers' Instagram @KierGaines, and his YouTube channel.

Kier: Spell it out for them.

Julian: UCLA Health, Free Guided Meditation, Mental Health America, and of course Understood's Wunder app. Be sure to check these out. They're all incredible. Kier, thank you again. I appreciate you, brother. I really appreciate what you're doing.

Kier: I appreciate you. I appreciate all the work you do in the schools. I only had one — I only saw one Black male from the time I was in pre-K till sheesh, maybe 10th grade. So just your presence in the school and you actually caring about the kids that walk through those doors? It reverberates throughout their lives, whether you know it or not, man. So even off this camera and this platform, thank you for everything you do. It is critically impactful, man.

Julian: Thank you. I appreciate that. And it's good work. It's the work that needs to be done. So, listeners, thank you so much for listening. I'll be back soon.

Kier: Yeah, thank you.

Julian: You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@understood.org.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

Host

  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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