The suppressive effect of hydrocortisone and dexamethasone on salivary cortisol was investigated in a 2-year study of pituitary-adrenal function in a variety of child psychiatric patients and healthy controls. Symptomatology was assessed using the Child Behavioral Checklist (CBCL). Cortisol day profiles were assessed at 2-h intervals from 0800 to 2000h on three occasions. Dexamethasone and hydrocortisone were administered orally twice at 2000h, the doses being adjusted for bodyweight according to the standard dexamethasone suppression test. Fifty-one patients, including patients with dysthymia, oppositional defiant disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and ten age and sex matched controls participated. Basal cortisol levels in patients were generally lower than in controls. Both dexamethasone and hydrocortisone were effective in suppressing salivary cortisol, although dexamethasone was somewhat more potent and its effect lasted longer. Hyporesponsiveness to hydrocortisone, but not to dexamethasone, distinguished patients with dysthymia and oppositional defiant disorder from controls. Responsiveness to hydrocortisone was correlated with the symptom clusters social problems and anxious/depressed. The data support the idea that there exist syndrome aspecific disturbances in feedback activity beyond the level of the pituitary, i.e. at the hypothalamic level, at an early age. From this perspective, hydrocortisone suppression is a useful tool for studying pituitary-adrenal function in children. Behavioral correlates of these disturbances of pituitary-adrenal function should be determined.