People who have anxiety disorders may feel some type of nervousness or alertness at all times, even when they are not facing any kind of threat at all
Adjustment Disorder: When Teens Can’t Find A Balance
People with adjustment disorders have symptoms that go far beyond those experienced by others dealing with the same situations. In short, they can’t cope with the change on their own, and the results can be dramatic.
“Adolescence isn’t about letting go. It’s about hanging on during a very bumpy ride.” This quote is attributed to Ron Taffel, but it’s a statement that almost any teen might relate to. As adolescence moves forward, friends come and go, bodies change, classes become more difficult, graduation looms and independence hangs tantalizingly out of reach. Some teens face even more difficult challenges, due to violence or family stresses. While keeping a sense of equilibrium during times of constant change might be difficult for anyone to accomplish, teens with adjustment disorders struggle just a little more than their peers, and they might need help from a counselor as a result.
Understanding the Triggers
Adjustment disorders could appear in response to almost any situation, but commonly, teens who develop these problems are dealing with routine problems involving school and home, or they might be dealing with:
- Sexuality issues
- Relationship breakup
- An illness, or a serious illness in a loved one
- Physical assault
- Public catastrophe, including surviving an earthquake, a flood or a terrorist attack
- Death of a loved one
Obviously, anyone who is dealing with a situation that is severe would show some type of distress. It’s human nature to experience confusion, grief or anxiety when asked to deal with challenges like those listed above. However, people with adjustment disorders have symptoms that go far beyond those experienced by others dealing with the same situations. In short, they can’t cope with the change on their own, and the results can be dramatic.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, symptoms of an adjustment disorder could appear at any time, but they typically take hold within three months after the stressor appears. Some symptoms are internal and they’re hard to see, unless the teen chooses to speak up. Teens might feel sad, anxious or depressed, and they may have trouble sleeping, concentrating or completing routine tasks. Teens like this might just seem slightly low and sad, or they might work hard to bury their feelings, and they might show no outward signs at all.
Other teens with adjustment disorders display their discomfort by:
- Fighting with others
- Avoiding social outings
- Skipping school
- Driving too fast
Teens with adjustment disorders may feel so helpless and hopeless that they may believe that suicide is the only way out. While suicidal thoughts might strike teens with all sorts of mental illnesses, a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that adjustment disorders work like gasoline on a fire, causing teens to move from contemplating suicide into attempting suicide at a rapid pace. The mental illness issue just causes the issue to move forward so much faster, and this could make it difficult for parents to both spot and stop these feelings before the teen takes action on them.
While parenting doesn’t cause adjustment disorders, teens who have strong relationships with their parents may be slightly protected from these problems. They may feel able to discuss their troubles and concerns, and they may be able to ask their parents for advice on how to handle the changes they’re facing. Teens who don’t have good relationships with their parents may not have a support system to lean on, and as they stuff their feelings deep down inside, they may develop adjustment problems in the future.
Proper Diagnosis and Care
Adjustment disorders are triggered by a specific event, and as a result, these mental illnesses do tend to fade with time and proper treatment. For example, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that of all of those who were hospitalized due to an adjustment disorder, only 18 percent were readmitted to the hospital with the same condition. Studies like this seem to suggest that people with adjustment disorders can get better with proper treatment, and teens might also benefit from the passing of time. As the triggering event moves more and more into the past, they might feel less pain in the moment.
Teens with adjustment disorders do need treatment, however, as they’re at such a high risk for suicide. Ignoring that risk could mean allowing the teen to make a terrible mistake. In addition, teens with adjustment disorders will need to learn how to deal with transition and change if they are to live happy, healthy adult lives.
Change is a part of the human experience, after all, and teens will need to learn how to handle these issues so they can move confidently through adulthood without falling apart each time life throws them a curve. Therapy can be vital in this effort.
Most therapy sessions for adjustment disorders focus on problem-solving techniques. Clients learn how to deal with the change they’ve been handed, and they learn how to express and process their emotions pertaining to the event. Some find that meditation allows them to experience an emotion without being overwhelmed by it, while others find that using nature as a therapeutic tool is incredibly helpful. When faced with a trauma or a trial, these people might hike, camp or garden, observing how nature changes on a regular basis yet continues to persist. Teens who develop these tools now could use them for the rest of their lives, and they might not ever develop another recurrence of an adjustment disorder in the future. That’s a gift parents would be happy to provide.
The Mayo Clinic reports that people with adjustment disorders also benefit from:
- A regular sleep schedule
- Healthy eating patterns
- Rewarding hobbies
- Support group meetings
- The support of family members and friends
Therapists might also encourage their clients to pick up these beneficial habits, and they might follow up with parents to ensure that teens are continuing to live a healthy lifestyle, even when the formal therapy program has ended.
If your son is struggling with an adjustment disorder, we’d like to help. At Muir Wood, we’ve developed an intensive program to assist adolescent boys with mental illnesses, addictions or both. We use therapy techniques to find the root of the pain, and we incorporate nature into our therapies by asking our clients to go on therapeutic hikes with a counselor. Our approach works, and we’d like to tell you more about it. Download our admissions packet to find out more, or call us with any questions you might have.
Comforting a small child after a traumatic event is relatively easy. A boy who falls from his bike, for example, might need a few kisses from his mother and a quick bandage job, and he’ll be on his way in no time at all. There are some traumas, however, that can cause deeper damage and more intense emotional scarring.
Some forms of trauma, in fact, can lead to emotional and behavioral symptoms that manifest weeks or even months later, and no amount of parental soothing might seem to ease the pain. Teens with these trauma-related symptoms may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they might need the help of a treatment program. The PTSD cycle begins with a serious, upsetting event that’s difficult to live through and almost impossible to forget.
Good examples of traumatic episodes that could trigger PTSD include:
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Natural disasters
- Death of a loved one
- Automobile crashes
- Acts of terrorism
Many teens can go through these episodes without developing symptoms of mental illness. For example, the National Center for PTSD reports that about 14 to 43 percent of teenage boys go through some kind of trauma, and yet only about 1 to 6 percent of boys develop PTSD. Teens who have strong social networks and easy access to support can simply talk about their feelings and process their pain, and after a few troubling days have passed, they might feel just fine once more. But there are some kinds of trauma that are difficult for teens to process. Boys who are subjected to long-term sexual abuse, for example, might find it difficult to make sense of their abuse, and they might not find it easy to disclose what’s being done to their bodies. Episodes that just don’t end are more likely to result in PTSD. Similarly, events that cause intense suffering both to the teen and to the teen’s family can be harder for young people to deal with.
In a study of teenage survivors of an earthquake in China, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, researchers found that 60 percent of the students interviewed months later were still thinking about the event on some level. These young people were injured or they saw loved ones injured or killed, and their homes and communities were leveled. It’s likely that they dealt with the aftermath daily, and had few people they could talk to who weren’t similarly upset. Life was just hard for these young people, and the earthquake was to blame. Anytime an event like this causes such intense suffering for a long period of time, PTSD is a likely outcome.
Those who do develop PTSD find it hard to escape the memory of the event, and their thoughts seem to center on the unpredictability and danger of the world that surrounds them. Adolescent boys may discuss the event at length, repeating the details they remember or the feelings they experienced, or they may just mention the event in passing on a regular basis. On the flip side, some teens with PTSD never discuss the event at all, and they avoid the people, places and things that remind them of the pain they endured.
Teens with PTSD may also develop symptoms that seem to have little to do with memory. They might jump or startle easily, for example, or they may seem just angry and upset much of the time. They might act out in class, refusing to complete their homework assignments or do as they’re told. Some teens seem to regress to an earlier stage of development, and they might begin using a softer voice, wetting the bed or even sucking their thumbs for comfort.
In an effort to soothe their pain, teens might develop all sorts of destructive habits.
Some might focus on their weight, spending hours at the gym in order to build up muscle so they can fight off future attacks with ease. Others might delve into the use and abuse of alcohol or drugs, dampening the activity of the brain in order to allow them to sleep through the night without nightmares or get through the day without crying.
The Nemours Foundation reports that most symptoms of PTSD develop within the three months that follow a traumatic episode. It’s important to note, however, that PTSD symptoms sometimes don’t develop immediately. The day after an attack, the teen might seem bruised but fine, for example, but troubling behaviors might blossom months later.
Parents might find specific behaviors of teens with PTSD to be troubling. They may dislike the jumpiness and nightmares that come with the disorder, for example, or they may find it hard to handle a child that continually repeats the same disturbing story on a regular basis. The teen’s peers may also notice the changes, however, and the damage can be compounded when a teen’s behavior makes that child the target of abuse, shunning and teasing. Teens with PTSD who suck their thumbs or act out in class might be labeled as troublemakers by their teachers and their peers, and they might be less frequently invited to parties or social gatherings as a result. They might wear out their friends with endless discussions of death, or they may find it hard to deal with mundane activities during the school day, and they may raise the ire of officials in school if they skip class or otherwise misbehave.
A report produced for the UIC Great Cities Institute also suggests that children with PTSD could be missing out on an important life lesson. During adolescence, children are learning how to understand what’s happening in the environment, as well as what an appropriate response should be when things don’t happen as planned.
Teens with PTSD are shut down and emotionally closed off, believing that the world is much too dangerous to interact with, and they may not learn these lessons as a result. In the future, when they’re provided with a stressor, they might slide right back into isolation or PTSD. They just know of no other way to handle their feelings.
While PTSD can be treated, providing appropriate support in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic episode can prevent PTSD from developing. Parents can help by:
- Allowing the child to discuss the event at his own pace
- Reassuring the child that his feelings are understandable and normal
- Allowing the child to regress to an earlier stage, if the child feels that action is appropriate
- Letting the child have control over some part of the day, so he feels less powerless
If the symptoms don’t abate or the child seems to be growing worse, professional help is best. In a structured program, therapists can provide treatments that allow the child to slowly become accustomed to the presence of the disturbing memories without feeling the need to react in a negative manner. Therapy might also teach the child how to soothe his distress through breathing exercises, meditation or physical activity. Some teens benefit from family therapy in which the whole group works on communication techniques.
It can be difficult to think about placing a beloved child in a therapy program, but it’s important to remember that PTSD rarely resolves without some kind of help. Even those children who seem improved in subsequent months remain at risk for future episodes of PTSD in response to trauma, if they don’t learn how to modify their reactions through therapy. By enrolling a child in a treatment program, parents might be allowing that child a reasonable opportunity for healing. It could be the best gift a parent can give.
If you’re looking for help for your adolescent boy, please call us or download our admissions packet. At Muir Wood, we specialize in assisting troubled teen boys, helping them to overcome their current problems and plan for a future of happiness. Please call us to find out more.