Vanessa E. Lien, DNP, APRN, NP-C - Nurse Practitioner, provides outpatient diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric and behavioral health conditions, as well as medication management to clients of all ages.
Featuring Vanessa Lien, Nurse Practitioner
Welcome to Mind Your Mind, a podcast presented by Dakota Family Services, an outpatient behavioral health clinic located in Minot, Bismarck, and Fargo, North Dakota. In this podcast, I will talk with our experts about understanding and nurturing our mental health and wellness. I'm your host, Tim Unsinn. Join me each episode as we explore the intricacies of our minds, decrease the stigma of mental illness, learn practical tips for managing our mental health and wellbeing, and recognize when it's time to ask for help. Join me now to mind your mind. Welcome to this episode of Mind Your Mind.
Our guest is Vanessa Lien. Vanessa is a nurse practitioner in Fargo and provides outpatient diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric and behavioral health conditions, as well as medication management to clients of all ages. Vanessa, it is great to have you on Mind Your Mind.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Today's topic is teen brain and before everyone goes into a panic, we'll get to that in just a second, because I see teen brain and I'm just like, Oh, okay. Before we get to that, the first question out of the gate, why do you do what you do?
As a nurse practitioner, I really have a unique opportunity to help improve the mental health of the patients that I take care of as well as their quality of life. So I can really weigh and treat the impact of mental illness on my patients and really help them function better in society. Another thing that I really find interesting is there's tremendous research happening in neural science and scientists are really only beginning to understand the complicated systems of our brains, and that they're really learning about how our brains affect our behavior. So psychiatry to me is a very intellectually stimulating field and it's also challenging. So I like it because I knew I would never get bored.
That's a great reason of why you do what you do. I love that. Well today, we're going to be talking about the teen brain on Mind Your Mind. So what changes occur in the brain during adolescence? We're talking about the teen brain, what changes occur and what are the things we need to know?
Well, one of the first things that I always start by telling people is that the brain for adolescents does not reach its biggest size until early on in adolescence. So for girls that size is around 11 years old when it reaches its biggest size and boys it does not reach this biggest size until the age of 14. So this difference though, I tell everyone does not mean that boys or girls are smarter than one another. It's just a difference in age. And the brain actually continues to mature even after it's done growing. So the growing is done around that time, but there's still a lot of maturation and changes that are happening. So this goes on until our mid to late twenties, which really surprises people sometimes. And the front part of the brain, which is our prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain regions that mature.
So this area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and when it comes to teenagers, that controlling of impulses. Because these skills are still developing, teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, which we'll talk a little bit about more later. They engage in these risky behaviors, but they might not consider the potential results of those decisions. And that's something to consider. And another fact is that the teen brain is really ready to learn and adapt. It has a lot of what we call plasticity, and that means that it can change, it can adapt. It can also respond to its environment. So challenging academics or different mental activities and exercises can really help the brain mature and learn. And with all these changes going on, this is the time that we see, in the field we're working in, that many mental disorders can begin to appear during this stage in life.
These ongoing changes in the brain, along with all the physical and emotional and social changes that occur during the teenage years, this makes the kids vulnerable to a myriad of mental health problems. So these big changes in the brain can explain why adolescence is the time when we see a marked onset in children having depression, anxiety, eating disorders, even bipolar disorder. So that's something to really be aware of. And another interesting piece is that the teenager's brain is also a little bit more vulnerable to stress. Because the teen brain is still developing, teens just don't respond to stress the same way as adults do. So this could lead to some stress-related mental disorders such as anxiety, depression. So I always talk to my teenagers and their parents about practicing mindfulness, which is a process where you pay attention to the present moment.
And this really helps teens cope and reduce their stress levels. And another thing I know there's a lot that goes on in the teenage brain, so it's a lot. But research shows that the melatonin levels in the blood, which is our sleep hormone; we all have melatonin and this is what helps us sleep. But in teenagers, the levels of melatonin are naturally higher later at night, and they drop later in the morning than when they do in younger children and adults. So this difference can possibly explain why your teenagers stay up late at night and then they struggle getting going in the morning. Teenagers really do, for their brains to grow and develop, they need about 9 to 10 hours of sleep at night, but most teens don't get enough sleep. And not getting enough sleep can then make it difficult to pay attention, and increase those impulsive decisions.
And this all probably sounds frightening to everyone, but it's also important to know after talking about all those changes going on, that the teenage brain is really a resilient thing. It can really handle a lot of things that we may throw at it. So adolescence is a vulnerable time in general for the brain, but teenagers and most teens in general, they go on to become healthy adults. So it's not meant to scare you, just to be aware. And some changes in the brain during this important phase of development, they actually help protect against long-term mental disorders. So, yes, it's a time where we see a lot of increase in mental disorders, but some of the things that happen are also some protective factors. So it's not meant to frighten everyone.
I can imagine as moms and dads are listening and hearing the topic, the teen brain, and then hearing you talk about all those things we need to know, how can we as parents promote and encourage mental wellness in our kids?
Yeah. That's a really important piece that I try to talk to parents and children about too. It's easy for us as parents to identify a child's physical needs. You know, they all need to be fed and they all need to have clothes and food and water and, you know, go to bed at a reasonable hour. But knowing their mental and emotional needs is not always that obvious. Mental health allows the children to think clearly and develop socially and also learn new skills. One important thing is to really give children unconditional love. A sense of love and security and acceptance should be at the heart of every family life. We all have different families, but we all need that. We all desire that need to feel loved and accepted by our families. And children need to know that love doesn't depend on their accomplishments, whether they do well or do bad. They're loved unconditionally. So mistakes and defeats, they should be expected and accepted. Confidence grows in a home that is full of unconditional love and affection.
Another important piece would be to nurture children's self-confidence and self-esteem. And ways we can do that as parents, is by praising them. You know, when they were little, we encouraged them to take their first steps and maybe learn a new game, teach them how to ride their bikes, but we want our children to explore, to play in a safe area where they can't get hurt, but as they get older, you know, we need to be an active participant in their activities. So parents paying attention to their children and what they're doing helps build their confidence and self-esteem levels. It's important too, to help set realistic goals with children. Young children really need some realistic goals that match their ambitions with their abilities.
So not every kid is going to go on to be an Olympian athlete, but for some of them, that might be a goal and a realistic ambition, but some maybe just want to win the local spelling bee. And that's just realistic for those kids. And another factor for parents is to be honest with their children; don't hide failures from your children. It's important that they know that we all make mistakes too, and it's reassuring to know that, you know, we're not perfect. And one of the big things that I just, I can never stress enough to parents to help with mental wellness, is to teach children positive coping skills. Coping skills are really important and they're essential to ensure mental wellness. Without them we just don't thrive. So parents can go a long way in helping their teens feel very emotionally secure by doing this and that security provides the foundation of mental wellness.
At the same time, it really is important that we help them learn strategies to tackle challenges on their own. You know, we're there for guidance and help, but we're not there to show them how to do everything. So by helping children learn and respond to their emotions in a constructive manner at an early on age, parents really empower them to navigate any future emotional struggles that come up. And it may even help teenagers avoid bouts of depression and anxiety, which we talked about, that can pop up during those years. We're all probably wondering, what are some of those coping skills? And there are a lot, but some of the ones that I really like to focus on, some healthy coping mechanisms to manage sadness and stress that might come up, would be maybe a breathing exercise and deep breathing techniques and visualization forms of meditation.
That's not always an easy thing to sell to a kid, but it really is helpful. Encouraging kids to participate in creative outlets like music or drawing or writing; even journaling is another really popular thing that really helps reduce those stress levels. And keeping our bodies moving. So sports, activities, outdoor activities that are in nature. And it's also important for kids to have trusted friends and mentors that they can reach out to so that they have somebody besides parents to turn to. On that topic, I really encourage parents to have the conversation about mental wellness and mental illnesses with their teenagers. So it's important for parents and teenagers to be aware of different mental health challenges that can affect them. So not only just having the conversation about anxiety and depression, but what symptoms can we watch out for? What, what things should we be aware of?
And this will allow teenagers to differentiate between, you know, as a teenager, there's normal, emotional ebbs and flows of life, but there's also things that are more serious, such as an anxiety disorder that might need some medical assistance. And by parents helping the teens understand that, that this is a normal part of life, and it's not a cause of secrecy or shame to be experiencing this, that it kind of helps normalize those conversations and reduces the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental health. Another thing would be to communicate openly with the children. There's most likely going to be times when your teenager is reluctant to discuss an emotional challenge that they might be going through, but even so the knowledge that parents are available to listen and that they're there to provide support can be an invaluable source of comfort to a teenager during those times. Another thing, and really whether it's at home or at school, but just letting teens know what help is available to them.
So all the coping mechanisms in the world and the support of loved ones, sometimes it's just not enough to overcome a mental health challenge. So in these cases, it's really important that parents help teens understand that again, mental illness is not shameful, and parents should introduce teens to resources that are available. They can discuss possibly enrolling them in therapy. And it's just another tool to take control of their mental health and promoting teen mental wellness within the family is really important. And parents can help provide teens with building blocks for very positive and fulfilling life.
Our guest on Mind Your Mind is Vanessa Lien, and Vanessa, as you're talking about, you know, all these things we need to know and how to help our teens. So for the parent that has a teen well into their teen years, is there help and hope for them in this process as well?
Absolutely. It's a lot for parents to go through and it's a really stressful time and there's a lot of resources available for both parents and children. So just reaching out to a medical provider, you know, a child's pediatrician, a local, you know, just a quick Google search of mental health resources available should bring up a pretty big myriad of different things that are available. Or just reaching out to somebody; there are a lot of resources available, no matter where we are. So there's a lot that there's a lot of hope and a lot of things that can be done to help,
Vanessa, that's a lot of great information. And I know for parents, they appreciate itb hearing that there are options. There is hope because often, as I talk with a lot, and I'm sure you do as well, talk with parents of teens and the hair being pulled out and the frustration, and it's like, okay, we will talk you in and we'll talk you through the process and it's going to be better. But I love to hear you talk about communication, openness, honesty, because as parents, those are the things, I think, that are the keys that have that great conversation with our kids. As long as we're open, we're honest and we're communicating. It seems like a great, great starting point.
So before I let you go, I do have a final question for you. And that is what do you do to personally mind your mind?
Well, one of my favorite ways to kind of mind my mind and relax is actually by practicing mindfulness. And mindfulness is one of those things that allows me to be fully present and aware of where I am and what I'm doing and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what's going on around me. And that's really hard thing to do in this day and age when there's so much chaos and so much going around, you know, so much activity in our lives that by practicing mindfulness, I'm able to really mind my mind.
Vanessa, it has been great having you on Mind Your Mind. We appreciate you and your insights. Thank you again for your time today.
Thank you for joining us for Mind Your Mind, a podcast presented by Dakota Family Services. You can't have health without behavioral health. Remember to mind your mind. For more information, links to additional resources, contact information, and much more go to dakotafamilyservices.org.
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