Understanding Adjustment Disorder

Adjustment disorder is a disturbance in someone’s normal level of function due to a stressful event. The negative impacts are short-term and are specifically focused on the stressful event. Adjustment disorder can often mimic other mental health concerns, so make sure that symptoms are not related to other diagnoses like anxiety, depression, or conduct disorder. Adjustment disorder typically manifests after a life-changing experience – such as moving to a new house, money troubles, losing a friendship, a breakup, divorce, illness or health-related concerns, a car accident. Events like these can trigger a response in your child that can be debilitating.

Signs of Adjustment Disorder

Depressed mood


Disturbance of conduct

Excessive worry

Poor concentration



Loss of self-esteem

Feelings of hopelessness


Feeling stuck

Poor school performance

The symptoms of adjustment disorder typically begin within three months of the stressful event and end within six months.

Children most often experience symptoms of poor school performance, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, sadness, reclusiveness, or attention seeking behaviors. Keep in mind that children may have more difficulty identifying these symptoms as a reaction to a stressful life event. If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing symptoms, seek professional help. Gathering information, persistence, and patience under an experienced professional will yield the best results toward a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Some Things to Consider

Has my child experienced a significant life event?

(Remember that a child’s interpretation of what constitutes a significant life event can be different than an adult’s).

Did this event happen in the past three months?

Has it been over six months since the event?

Have the symptoms been extreme and impairing my child’s daily functioning?


Treatment is designed to solve the problem fast. Crisis intervention is sometimes used as a first attempt to reduce extreme or potentially harmful symptoms such as self-harm or substance abuse. The goal of crisis intervention is to assist the child’s return to a normal state of functioning. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven to be an effective means to overcome adjustment disorder. CBT focuses on reframing the life event into something that is not so threatening, and that the child has control over. For example, a child who moves to a different state is struggling to adjust to her new environment. Feelings of loss, sadness, anxiousness, fear of a new school, are affecting her school performance, sleep, and overall quality of life. CBT could help this child sort through those negative feelings and reinterpret them as – this is a new opportunity for me to make friends, learn about a new state, enjoy a new afterschool activity. Gaining perspective and awareness of why these feelings are negative and the event is stressful is key to resolving the issue. Perhaps during the move, she was forced to say goodbye to her best friend. Naturally that would cause negative feelings, but she may not be aware of that factor. Helping her acknowledge that she misses her friend may help her move in the right direction. Giving her a fun way to keep in contact with her best friend would be a quick solution to help her remain connected and for her to feel safer and in control over her circumstances. In most cases, high levels of support will help smooth the bumpy road of adjusting to a new life situation. Support groups for victims of disasters, car accidents, illness and the like, are regularly available in most communities or online. Family support sessions can strengthen the family unit and allow for family members to transition together.

Adjustment disorder can be a difficult mental health concern to diagnose. Make sure to consult with an experienced professional to get the best treatment for your child after a significant life event.

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