An adjustment disorder is an extraordinary emotional reaction to a difficult event. In children these events may include the death of a loved one, parental divorce, being sent to boarding school, or a serious illness (in themselves or a loved one). This type of mental illness is stress related, and it can lead to thoughts, emotions and behaviours that can interrupt a child’s, and maybe even a whole family’s, daily life. For some children an adjustment disorder may abate on its own but for others symptoms may last for longer than six months and require professional treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Adjustment Disorders
Adjustment disorders often have signs and symptoms that are both emotional and behavioural. In adjustment disorders these signs and symptoms begin after a difficult or traumatic event. Emotional signs and symptoms of adjustment disorders include sadness, apathy, worry, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Behavioural signs and symptoms of adjustment disorders include crying, differences in sleep patterns, vandalism, truancy and fighting. Not everyone affected by an adjustment disorder will display the same signs and symptoms, or the same combination of signs and symptoms.
Types of Adjustment Disorders
There are six major adjustment disorders that are routinely diagnosed. These disorders include adjustment disorder with depressed mood, adjustment disorder with anxiety, adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood, adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct, adjustment disorder with disturbance of emotions and conduct, and adjustment disorder unspecified.
Diagnosis of Adjustment Disorders
Adjustment disorders are diagnosed by mental health professionals in accordance with accepted diagnostic guidelines. These guidelines include that the emotional and/or behavioural signs and symptoms began within three months of a particularly difficult event occurring, that the signs and symptoms are so severe that they interrupt daily life (for the individual and/or the family), and that some signs and symptoms improve within six months of the difficult event ending.
Treatment for Adjustment Disorders
The main treatment for adjustment disorders is counselling. Counselling may be suggested for the individual diagnosed with an adjustment disorder or for the family as a whole. For particular children play therapy may be recommended instead. In some cases medication may also be recommended to treat the symptoms of the disorder. The professional who diagnoses an adjustment disorder will generally also offer advice for treatment.
Living with an Adjustment Disorder
Families of children diagnosed with an adjustment disorder can have a great impact on the success of treatment for this disorder. Providing love and support, offering verbal encouragement, providing opportunities for family discussions, serving a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise are all things that families can do to support children with adjustment disorders. Keeping regular bed times and sleeping hours are also important for children with adjustment disorders.
Adjustment disorders can occur in children when they must suffer through a particularly difficult event in their young lives. Some children become overwhelmed by these events to the point that they are unable to cope. If parents are worried that their children have been affected by a difficult or traumatic event and now may be displaying the signs or symptoms of an adjustment disorder, they should visit a GP or child’s mental health professional immediately for further information.