Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

February 6, 2011

Sodium Chloride Pellets, Better Living Through Chemistry and ADHD

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 3:32 am
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        On another of our wintry mornings, as I spread ice melt on the front steps, I was reminded of the Dow slogan – better living through chemistry, and of my dad’s favorite line – that everything in life is easier when you have the right tools.  Thinking that I could opt for a non-chemical alternative and clear my stairs with a shovel and ice pick, and lots of energy, I thought about children with ADHD and how much work it can be for them to succeed.  Luckily, chemistry can help both the winter chill, and children with ADHD.

            Sodium chloride, or salt pellets, work by chemically altering the melting point of ice.  Usually, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  But when you add salt to the mix, it must dip to 20 degrees Fahrenheit for water to turn to ice (or less, depending on how much salt is in the water).  This chemical reality can make our roads safer, and some of our shoveling easier.

            There are also chemical realities at play in some learning, behavior and emotional disorders.  Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a frequent diagnosis in school-age children has a significant body of research suggesting various biochemical, neurological phenomenon that occur in the disorder.  For over 3 decades, medications that address these biochemical realities have been used with children to ameliorate the impulsivity, hyperactivity and lack of focus that can impede their healthy development. 

            There is no question that some children have been inappropriately diagnosed with ADHD, and that some children are labeled as having symptoms because classrooms and teachers are unable to create successful environments for them.  But in many years of clinical practice and reviewing the extensive research literature, it is clear to me that the condition is a real and challenging factor in some children’s lives.  Often, talking with parents and educators about children with clear evidence of ADHD, and who are seriously impacted by it, I face enormous reluctance to consider medication.  While this is not specific to ADHD, parents are reluctant to consider medication for depression, anxiety and other psychological problems, the medications available for ADHD require less commitment (they only need to be taken when needed – and are washed out of the body relatively quickly). 

            A thorough discussion of medication for childhood psychological difficulties is beyond my scope here.  Ice pellet chemistry reminded me of my frustration at the way we sometimes deny the chemistry involved in some children’s psychological symptoms.  In this denial, we may sentence children to extremely hard labor, and may even compromise their ability to lead happy, productive lives.  When children have traditional medical difficulties, we seem better able to understand the chemical component of the equation.  Parents of diabetic children do not tell their sons or daughters to work harder to make insulin, nor are asthmatic children instructed to just breathe!  Yet daily, dozens of children with ADHD are told to focus, sit still and think before they act . . . in spite of possibly innate chemical tendencies.

            Of course, even diabetic children helped by insulin, must watch their diet.  Asthmatic children using medications and inhalers may need to clear their homes of pets.  Medicine and chemistry only do part of the job.  Just like ice melt – the sodium chloride capsules make the work of shoveling easier, but don’t do it for us.  No medication will do an ADHD child’s homework, or teach him to read.  And just as ice melt has its costs (it can be corrosive on some surfaces), medications do have side effects.

            The challenge, of course, is to know when a child really needs “better living through chemistry”.  We all want our children to try their hardest, and not take the easy way out.  But we also know that when work requires extreme effort and offers little hope of success, children give up, or worse, label themselves as losers and failures.   In this winter of inundating snow and storms that trap us indoors, I find myself thinking how trapped some children feel by their biology and their symptoms.  Despite their best efforts, they may be as stuck and frozen as my driveway.  The little pellets of sodium chloride made it do-able for me to chip my way out.  Or maybe they helped just enough to make me feel like I could succeed and get me out there with a shovel. 

            No child should be placed on medication without a careful evaluation by a qualified professional.  But no child who needs it should be denied medication because we deny the chemistry of behavior.  That’s as unfair and unproductive as expecting my driveway to keep itself warm and clear of ice from now until Spring.


1 Comment »

  1. your analogies are just superb and inspirational. Thank
    you so much for sharing your “tools” with others and
    it’s a grand mitzvah too.

    Your fan Devora K.

    Comment by Devora K — February 7, 2011 @ 2:34 am |Reply

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