Updated on June 24, 2022
All people can have a negative emotional reaction to some event or circumstance in life that provokes stress. While changes and unexpected events like illness or divorce are indeed a part of life, some individuals struggle to navigate these situations.
Children and adolescents can lack the age-developed coping mechanisms that help them navigate through stressful events. When the emotional or behavioral reaction to the stress is excessive or long-lasting, this could be deemed as an adjustment disorder. Below is a closer look at teen adjustment disorder, symptoms to watch for as a parent or caregiver, and more.
What Is Adjustment Disorder Exactly?
Even though adjustment disorder sounds like a less serious issue than some psychological problems, the disorder is real and readily recognized in professional literature. The ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision) lists adjustment disorders under behavioral, mental, and neurodevelopmental disorders.
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) describes six specific types of adjustment disorders, including:
- Adjustment disorder with depressed mood
- Adjustment disorder with anxiety
- Adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features
- Adjustment disorder with conduct disturbance
- Adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct
- Adjustment disorder unspecified
In order to be diagnosed with an adjustment disorder, certain criteria must be met. First, there must be an apparent, severe life stressor that would be expected to provoke a stressed response. Second, the symptoms must show up within three months of that specific life event. Lastly, the symptoms cannot be directly the result of another emotional illness or simply associated with what could be deemed as typical grief.
Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder in Teens
One reason adjustment disorder can be difficult to point out without professional intervention is the fact that the symptoms can be so broadly defined. With teen adjustment disorder, the symptoms could easily be blamed on other problems. And, those symptoms can vary depending on the type of adjustment disorder the teen is dealing with.
For example, a teen dealing with an adjustment disorder with a depressed mood may:
- Seem sad and tearful
- Show signs of hopelessness
- Experience a lack of interest in once enjoyable things
- Withdraw from friends, family, and social events
- Have suicidal tendencies or ideology
By contrast, a teen with an adjustment disorder can also only portray behavioral problems. This may mean the teen starts getting into a lot of fights at school, partakes in reckless behaviors, or starts acting out at home.
The most ambiguous form of adjustment disorder in teens is the unspecified type. You may notice small or large changes that don’t necessarily align with a depressed mood, anxiousness, or even major conduct changes. For instance, the teen may suddenly lose interest in completing school work or sleep a lot more than usual.
Another important thing to note, teen adjustment disorder symptoms can be acute or chronic. Acute symptoms may last only for a brief period, such as six months. However, more chronic cases can disrupt a teen’s life or generate behavioral or emotional changes for much longer.
Risk Factors for Adjustment Disorder to Consider
There can be several risk factors that make a teen more likely to experience an adjustment disorder. Genetics, prior life experiences, levels of emotional support at home, and even the overall temperament of the teen can be factors to consider. A few examples of life experiences that can make a teen more likely to have an issue with this condition include:
- The teen experienced some level of significant stress during their childhood
- The teen has experienced mental health problems in the past or is currently struggling with emotional problems
- The teen is facing a number of stressful life circumstances that are occurring during a brief time frame (e.g. loss of a parent, relocating, and witnessing a violent event within a short time frame)
Frequently Co-Occurring Conditions
Teens that have dealt with mental health problems in the past may be more at risk of developing an adjustment disorder. Further, the condition can often co-exist with existing mental health issues. A teen who has previously been diagnosed with depression, for instance, may also be dealing with an adjustment disorder. The symptoms of both conditions can exacerbate either issue and should be carefully assessed, diagnosed, and treated.
Teens that have dealt with mental health problems in the past may be more at risk of developing an adjustment disorder.
Situations That May Trigger Symptoms of Teen Adjustment Disorder
Any type of stressful life event could potentially trigger symptoms of an adjustment disorder. While most parents assume that teen adjustment disorder only comes up when negative situations occur, this is not always the case. Events that trigger stress can be either positive or negative. Some of the most common events that can put a teen at risk include:
- Divorce, marriage, separation of primary caregivers
- Interpersonal problems, such as with friends, romantic partners, or family
- Changes in family situations, such as getting a new sibling or someone moving into or out of the home
- Losing a loved one or facing a loved one’s dire illness
- Problems associated with school or work
- Major financial changes, such as a loss of a job
- Physical assault, abuse, or violent encounters
In some cases, stressors are less easy to point out. For a teen that lives in an environment where ongoing stressors are possible, it can be difficult to determine what triggers the emotional response. An example would be a teen from a neighborhood that sees a lot of crime or who lives in a home with someone that has a substance abuse problem.
Treatment for Adjustment Disorder
Teens that are being treated for an adjustment disorder will first undergo a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional to better understand the type of disorder the teen is dealing with. Several factors may also be considered before creating a treatment plan to target the disorder. Some things that may be considered include:
- The overall emotional health history of the teen
- The severity of the symptoms the teen portrays
- Whether the stressful event is still taking place or could interfere with certain types of treatment
Treatment for an adjustment disorder can understandably be very different depending on the symptoms. For example, a teen that is diagnosed with adjustment disorder with mental and behavioral issues may be better suited for some type of inpatient therapy. However, a teen that is showing mild depressive symptoms with an adjustment disorder may benefit from only individual psychotherapy or even family therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used in the treatment of teen adjustment disorder. CBT focuses on arming the teen with problem-solving and reasoning skills, new means of communicating their emotions to others, and impulse control. These skills can oftentimes be enough to help with managing the stress that can stem from a major life event.
Does Your Child Need Help?
Medication is rarely used to treat adjustment disorders unless the condition is co-occurring with an underlying mental health condition. The symptoms are less associated with chemical imbalances that can be associated with issues like depression or anxiety and more associated with environmental stressors. Therefore, some level of cognitive therapy is thought to be more effective.
A Final Word
Adjustment disorders can be passing, but they can have dire consequences for an adolescent just the same. Parents or caregivers that suspect their teen is dealing with this disorder should reach out to a trained professional for advice. Left untreated, the condition can lead to severe outcomes that put the teen at risk. Reach out to us for advice and help to find the best therapeutic solution for your teen.