Causes & Effects of Adjustment Disorder

Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder and get help for your child, teen, or young adult.

Understanding Adjustment Disorder

Learn about adjustment disorder

Sometimes when a change in a child or adolescent’s life occurs, that child or adolescent responds with a great deal of distress. When this is the case, it is likely that that child or adolescent is experiencing symptoms synonymous with adjustment disorder. A mental health condition in which a person experiences emotional disturbances and presents with behavioral issues shortly after going through a change in life, adjustment disorder can cause a great deal of disruption to a person’s life and daily functioning. Symptoms of this mental health condition can remain for up to six months following the initial trigger and cause children and adolescents, specifically, to act out at home, school, or in the community.

The emotional and behavioral disturbances that are part of this disorder typically occur due to an individual’s inability to effectively cope with new circumstances. Examples of such circumstances can include switching schools, moving to a new home, experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one, or when parents or caregivers divorce. It is important that these symptoms are addressed in treatment such that symptoms of this disorder can lead to the development of another mental health condition if the decline in functioning continues when symptoms of this disorder are ignored. Fortunately, there is treatment available for adjustment disorder that can reduce the potential for harmful effects and improve the lives of young people who are battling this mental health condition.


Adjustment disorder statistics

Studies have concluded that 50% children and adolescents who receive inpatient treatment that addresses mental health concerns meet diagnostic criteria for adjustment disorder. Moreover, it has been found that male and female children and adolescents are affected by this disorder equally. Finally, it has been discerned that when children and adolescents are grappling with adjustment disorder, nearly all of them initially present with acting out behaviors, of which happen in response to the abrupt life change that triggered this mental illness.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for adjustment disorder

Since experts in the field of mental health have yet to isolate a single cause for adjustment disorder, it is important to consider several factors that lead to the development of this mental health condition. The following explanations elaborate on the causes and risk factors that influence the onset of adjustment disorder symptoms:

Genetic: An individual’s genetics can play a big part in the manifestation of adjustment disorder symptoms. When there is a family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders, there is a high likelihood that an individual will struggle with coping with drastic changes in life. In the event that an abrupt life change occurs, this inability to cope can trigger the onset of adjustment disorder.

Physical: Possessing a family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders can cause a person to be vulnerable to the development of adjustment disorder. The reason for this has to do with the fact that individuals with a history of these conditions could have altered brain chemistry that can hinder one’s ability to cope with stress or change appropriately.

Environmental: Because adjustment disorder is known to be triggered by changes in a person’s life, environmental influences are a major contributing factor for this mental illness. Exposure to ongoing stress or experiencing abrupt changes can ultimately cause symptoms of adjustment disorder to manifest. Changing schools, losing a loved one suddenly, moving to a new home, or the birth or adoption of a new sibling are examples of environmental changes that can cause a child or adolescent to develop adjustment disorder symptoms.

Risk Factors:

  • Pre-existing mental health condition
  • Experiencing abuse and/or neglect
  • Lacking flexibility of emotions
  • Having poor social skills
  • Suffering the loss of a loved one
  • Changing schools
  • Experiencing parents’ divorce
  • Recent birth or adoption of a child
  • Moving to a new place
  • Being a victim of assault

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of adjustment disorder

Depending on the circumstance or experience that triggered the symptoms of adjustment disorder, the signs and symptoms of this mental health condition can differ from person to person. If you suspect that your child is struggling to adjust to a change in his or her life, it is important to note the presence of any of the following symptoms and report them to a mental health professional so that appropriate care can be received:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Tearfulness
  • Vandalism
  • School refusal
  • Social isolation
  • Volatile actions towards others or things
  • Jitteriness
  • Substance use
  • Defiant behaviors
  • Self-harm

Physical symptoms:

  • Tense muscles
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Migraines or frequent headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Pain in one’s chest
  • Accelerated heat rate

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to make good decisions
  • Lack of concentration
  • Difficulty formulating coherent thoughts
  • Hindered memory

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Increased separation anxiety
  • Frequent worry
  • Feeling desperate
  • Decreased pleasure in previously enjoyed activities or things
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling hostile


Effects of adjustment disorder

Untreated adjustment disorder can result in a number of effects that can severely impact a child or adolescent’s life. Additionally, these effects have the potential to impact a child’s functioning and wellbeing when he or she is an adult. The listed effects are examples what can happen if a child or adolescent does not receive treatment for adjustment disorder:

  • Substance use or abuse, which can lead to addiction and dependence
  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Unpredictable mood
  • Poor academic performance
  • Decrease in quality of relationships with others
  • Conflict with others
  • Isolation from peers and loved ones
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Adjustment disorder and co-occurring disorders

When a child or adolescent is suffering from adjustment disorder, it is possible for that individual to experience symptoms of another mental illness. The following mental health disorders are known to be diagnosed alongside adjustment disorder:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Communication disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Learning disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Panic disorder
  • Eating disorders

I feel so much happier and healthier after getting help at Millcreek of Pontotoc.

– A former patient