Adjustment Disorder in Children: Symptoms, Effects, Treatment
Like adults, children can experience stressors; therefore, adjustment disorder in children is a real diagnosis. Children are vulnerable to stressful life events just as adults are. Additionally, because they’re human, kids progress through developmental transitions that can create significant stress to lead to adjustment disorder. Among the stressors and developmental transitions that cause adjustment disorder in kids:
- School-related problems
- Social/relational problems
- Parental divorce or rejection
- Chronic physical illness
- Starting school/middle school/high school
- Substance use
Symptoms of Adjustment Disorder in Children
Adjustment disorder in children is caused by stressful life events and/or rocky developmental transitions. Kids experience symptoms of adjustment disorder that signal to adults that they need some help coping.
Symptoms of adjustment disorder in children can relate to mood, behavior, or both and can include:
- Low mood, listlessness
- Crying spells
- Excessive worry or fear
- Irritability, bursts of anger
- Absenteeism from school/school refusal
- Poor school performance
- Separation anxiety
Effects of Adjustment Disorder in Children
Symptoms of adjustment disorder in children can have significant impact on their functioning. Indeed, adjustment disorder can have negative effects in all areas of their lives.
Children’s behavior in response to stressors can be classified as externalizing or internalizing behaviors. Externalizing behaviors are directed outward toward others. Anger, fighting, tantrums, and bullying are some of the ways the symptoms of adjustment disorder in children affect their lives.
Internalizing behaviors are symptoms that are directed inward into the child. Isolation and withdrawal, lack of self-esteem, anxiety, worry, and fear are some of the inner effects adjustment disorder has on children and adolescents.
The effects of adjustment disorder can have a significant negative impact on social adjustment. Adjustment disorder can interfere in kids’ and teens’ desire and ability to form meaningful peer relationships. Social belonging is a crucial part of healthy development, and adjustment disorder can interfere with it.
Adjustment disorder in children can become a vicious circle of stressors, symptoms, and effects that all fuel each other, keeping kids stuck. While the circle can be hard to break, treatment is very possible.
Treatment of Adjustment Disorder in Children
Life stressors and/or developmental transitions can cause adjustment disorder in children and teens, and the symptoms and effects can make life miserable. This, however, is temporary. Children of all ages have the capacity to conquer adjustment disorder.
The most effective approach to helping children adjust to their stressors and overcome adjustment disorder is to help them build and strengthen coping skills. With rare exceptions, medication typically isn’t used to treat adjustment disorder in children.
Therapists trained in working with children and adolescents can be a big help in treating adjustment disorders. Play therapists specialize in helping kids overcome problems through special play techniques. Many schools have counselors that can help kids cope and adjust. Group therapy is effective in treating adjustment disorders in children. Parents and caregivers, too, can build up positive skills in kids.
A sampling of positive ways children cope with stressors:
- Distraction, redirecting focus and attention
- Fantasy/pretend play
- Physical activity
- Positive self-statements
- Emotional regulation
- Addressing symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Building social support networks and positive relationships with adults
- Increasing social skills
- Participating in social activities
Kids are people, too, and as such they’re sometimes vulnerable to stressors. Adjustment disorder in children causes life-disrupting symptoms and effects, but this disorder is highly treatable and thus temporary. Kids and teens can learn to cope and adjust. A healthy level of functioning is in reach, and adjustment disorder becomes a thing of the past for these children.
Last Updated: 24 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD