Teens at Muir Wood enjoy game night

Understanding Adjustment Disorder in Teens

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.

Common Symptoms

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 teens 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.

Further Reading