What is Teen Adjustment Disorder?

Changes and disappointments in life can be difficult for anyone, and this is especially true of teenagers. It is accordingly normal for teens to have some adjustment issues when things happen. However, it is important for parents to be able to recognize when typical adjustment and growing pains cross the line into something more significant that may require treatment.

Onset of Adjustment Disorder

With adjustment disorder, also known as situational depression, symptoms emerge within three months of the precipitating stressor but will not persist for more than six months after the stressor ends. The disorder may be brought on by single, multiple or ongoing events. The list below, while not exhaustive, shows some common instigating events for teenagers.

  • Losing a loved one
  • Moving
  • Changing schools
  • Starting school
  • Academic problems
  • Parents continuously fighting or getting divorced
  • Family financial problems
  • Living in a troubled neighborhood
  • Breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Problems with friends
  • Health problems

Adolescents who lack social skills, social supports, recreational opportunities or other coping skills are at increased risk of developing the disorder. Genetics or family history of this or comparable disorders are other risk factors.

Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder

For symptoms to meet the diagnostic criteria for an adjustment disorder, they must significantly interfere with your teen’s social life or school performance. Typical symptoms are listed below.

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Attention deficits
  • Social isolation
  • Irritability
  • Behavior problems
  • Physical pains or palpitations
  • Suicidal ideation

While these are common symptoms, there are individual differences in the type and number of symptoms that are experienced, and there are actually six different forms of the disorder that can be diagnosed based on a patient’s actual symptoms. To be diagnosable as an adjustment disorder, symptoms cannot be attributable to any other diagnosis or a normal part of bereavement. While they may be acute (lasting six months or less) if the stressor ends, they may also be chronic (lasting longer than six months) if they are caused by an ongoing stressor.

Helping a Teenager with Adjustment Disorder

One of the best things parents can do for their teenagers if they suspect that they are suffering from an adjustment disorder is to provide social support. This means that parents should not fear that they will make problems worse by talking about them. In contrast, it is important for adolescents who are dealing with stressors and experiencing symptoms to be able to express themselves in a supportive environment.

Beyond personally providing social support, parents should encourage their teens to stay connected with other supports, such as family, friends and healthy activities. Resources such as support groups or faith communities may help in certain circumstances. Basic lifestyle necessities, including good sleep, diet and exercise habits, remain important and may help with resilience.

Treatment of Adjustment Disorder

When symptoms do not go away and are not helped by readily available supports and lifestyle choices, it is important for parents to seek professional treatment, both to alleviate current symptoms and to prevent the onset of a more serious mental health condition. Treatment will normally consist of psychotherapy, medication or both. Medication is not always used to treat adjustment disorders but may sometimes be helpful in the short-term for relieving underlying depression and anxiety.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is the primary treatment used for adjustment disorders, and it is carried out in individual, group or family settings. It is meant to help adolescents understand why they are reacting to their stressors the way they are and to assist them with building up sufficient coping and stress management skills. The emotional support provided during this process helps teens work toward being capable of resuming their normal routines.

Centered Health, which is located in a picturesque setting on the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California, is a residential facility that treats a full range of mental and behavioral health as well as substance abuse disorders. It treats teenagers exclusively and offers holistic treatments, including healthy nutrition and recreational activities. Treatment there begins with a comprehensive assessment that leads to an individualized treatment plan provided by a multidisciplinary staff.