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Adjustment Disorders

Change – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – is a part of life, and it’s something every child will learn as they grow. However, sometimes when a change occurs in a child’s life, they have difficulty adjusting to the change and its “new normal.” When the stress of trying to adjust to difficult changes leads to behavioral or emotional issues, it may be a sign of an adjustment disorder.

What are adjustment disorders?

Adjustment disorders are the result of a child’s response to a change or stressor in their life. Many changes can bring about an adjustment disorder: a big move to a new location, divorce or separation, and learning of or adapting to a chronic illness are all examples of significant changes in a child’s life.

An adjustment disorder happens when a person is unable to use their available coping skills to adapt, or adjust, to the change. Because not all children will respond to the same event in the same way, there is no single reason a child why a child will develop an adjustment disorder. Personality and temperament, coping skills, past trauma and other reasons may affect a child’s response to stress.

What are symptoms of adjustment disorders?

Symptoms of an adjustment disorder can be varied and depend on the child themselves and the type of stressor they are encountering. Some symptoms may include:

  • Depression, withdrawal
  • Anxiety, panic, fear of what might happen
  • Behavioral disturbances at home, school or in social settings (“acting out”)

Some children may encounter some or a combination of all of these symptoms.

What treatment options are available for children with adjustment disorders?

The first step in seeking treatment if you suspect your child has an adjustment disorder is to consult your child’s primary healthcare provider, mental health provider, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) school counselor, or other resource. They will help coordinate an official evaluation, which can help confirm a suspected diagnosis of an adjustment disorder. These evaluations will often include interviews with both child and parents and aim to identify what the source of the stressor might be.

Together with the family, the healthcare provider will create a treatment plan specific to the child’s needs. This may include therapy – either individual, family or both – and may include medication.

Preventing Adjustment Disorders

While there is no clear cause of adjustment disorders, the best way to prevent them in children and teens is early identification and intervention. By knowing the signs and symptoms of an adjustment disorder, you can help your child get the care they need to continue to cope, grow and thrive.