When it comes to brain development, some people remain teenagers until they are 25 years old.

That’s what substance abuse counselor Scott Caldwell told dozens of
parents at a presentation Tuesday on how alcohol and drugs affect the
teen brain. The event was at the Rock County Job Center, and it was
sponsored by Partners in Prevention of Rock County.

“We thought not even 15 years ago that the brain was pretty well
cooked and out of the oven by age 5, and we now know that’s just simply
not the case,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell, a counselor with Connections Counseling in Madison, has 17
years experience in adolescent developmental theory. He said experts
now believe adolescence is a time of major changes to the brain.

Caldwell said at about age 12, the parts of people’s brains that
govern emotion, critical thinking and a person’s sense of reward begin
to change rapidly. For some, he said, that process doesn’t stop until
age 25.

“Brain skills come online with the onset in adolescence,” Caldwell
said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s learning every single day.”

As teens learn to bridle their emotions with reasoning skills, Caldwell said, alcohol and drug use can be counterproductive.

“Addiction is related to experiences of learning, memory, reward and
the motivation to go back to the substance, despite consequences,” he

Ninety-five percent of people with substance abuse problems, Caldwell said, started using drugs or alcohol during youth.

Caldwell used teen alcohol-use statistics from a recent Dane County
survey to show the effects of drinking on teen brain development. One
figure showed that 17 percent of high school students who drink alcohol
at least once a month report grades of C or lower.

That’s double the rate of students who don’t drink, the survey said.

Caldwell said students who binge drink tend to see a 10 percent decrease in the amount of information they retain.

“That’s gong to be the difference between an A and B. That’s how this translates on the ground,” he said.

The same survey said 30 percent of students reported drinking
alcohol at least once a month. Partners In Prevention Director Kate
Baldwin said a recent survey by the group shows 35 percent of parents
in Rock County consider it “very easy” for teens to get alcohol.

After the presentation, Baldwin told the Janesville Gazette that the
survey shows prescription medication has leapfrogged marijuana as the
second most popular recreational drug among Rock County teens.

To help parents prevent teen alcohol and drug abuse, Caldwell gives these tips:

— Lay clear, consistent ground rules, and stick to them. “I don’t
want you drinking, period,” is better than “I wish you wouldn’t drink,
but if you do, be responsible.”

— When teens break rules, make them accountable. Use a punishment
that matches the crime. Parents at Tuesday’s presentation suggested
cutting off access to vehicles, video games or social networking

— Spot positive behavior, and give teens credit for getting it right.

“You can’t appreciate unless you notice,” Caldwell said. “You have to catch kids doing something good.”

— Eat as a family whenever possible. Studies show more than half of
teens who abstain from alcohol use have frequent sit-down dinners at

— Know where teens are headed. Is it a party? Is it unsupervised?

“If it’s not in your home, you just gave up a little of your influence,” Caldwell said.

— Monitor alcohol at home, and lock up prescription drugs.