Surviving Your Teen’s Individuation Process

The concept of individuation is referenced in many different psychological theories. The growing independence and autonomy of children—most pronounced during adolescence— is a part of normal development. During individuation, your child is becoming their own person. They’re developing who they are, separate from parental influence. Individuation starts in early childhood but is most noticeable (and often most distressing for parents) during adolescence.

If your teenage child has recently become more self-focused, this likely means they are individuating. While this is a natural process, it can often seem problematic from a parent’s perspective. Your teen may have become much more self-absorbed, spending an increasing amount of time preening themselves and obsessing over things like clothing and hairstyles.

Your teen may also have become very vocal about their opinions, voicing them without being asked (and with an apparent disregard of how they might offend those around them). In fact, they seem to invite conflict with their persistent disagreeableness.

When you show interest in your teen’s life or ask a simple question, they react defensively. They accuse you of trying to control them, leading to arguments. They rebel against anything that doesn’t suit them, but they blame their new rebellious behaviors on you—even though you haven’t changed how you treat them.

As your teen individuates, you may also notice them spending less time with the family and more time with friends. These friendships are incredibly important to them, even if they don’t come out and say so. Your teen may also be trying to hide their romantic relationships from you, making you uneasy. Your child’s self-absorption, rebelliousness, and apparent rejection are difficult to bear.

What triggers individuation?

You may wonder where your teen’s behaviors are coming from and worry that your teen may be on a destructive path. You may even blame yourself for falling short as a parent.

On the contrary, the individuation process isn’t the result of bad parenting, outside influences, or anything else. It is the natural result of your child’s maturation. Your teen’s behaviors are a sign that the individuation process is progressing normally.

As a parent, you can’t—and shouldn’t—try to stop the process. You may be offended by your teen’s rebellious behaviors, hurt by their apparent rejection, and dismayed by their life choices. If so, it is essential to remember that the development of this autonomy is preparing your child for adulthood. The only way your child can become a successful adult is to find and pursue what makes them happy and live according to their own values—which won’t necessarily align with yours.

Why is individuation important?

Teens who fail to individuate during adolescence often unquestioningly adopt a parent, relative, or friend’s traits and qualities. When they reach adulthood, they will continue to align with those beliefs without considering whether they believe in them. As a result, they may experience an existential crisis later in life.

They may wake up one day wondering why they chose the career or spouse they did. Was it truly their own choice, or were they just doing what others encouraged them to do? They might feel like an imposter, become disillusioned, or get depressed. If they have already invested much of their life in a certain career or lifestyle, they will find it much more difficult to change directions than if they had made these decisions earlier.

Their subsequent attempts to individuate as adults may cause risky behaviors at a time when they have no safety net or parental boundaries to protect them. Individuation during adulthood may also result in more parent-child conflict than what would have occurred during their teenage years.

What we often see when teens fail to individuate are emerging adults that get stuck. They are dependent upon their parents to support them in most of their endeavors. These teens feel as if they are not capable of moving forward and becoming truly independent. They are anxious, depressed, or lack self-efficacy. In some ways, they may feel immature for their age.

When does individuation happen, and how long does it take?

If you haven’t been getting along with your teen, you may be hoping that this individuation stuff is just a phase. It’s true that some aspects of individuation are more distressing than others and that certain behaviors will ease over time.

However, individuation is not a quick process. Technically, individuation starts when you’re born and continues into old age. When your toddler learns how to say “no,” that is an early form of individuation. A fifth-grader expressing embarrassment when a parent shows up in their classroom is individuating. When an adult divorces their spouse and redefines what they’re looking for in a partner, that could also be considered a form of individuation.

You should also know that it is very difficult to predict how your teen’s individuation will progress. The most apparent signs of individuation may show up around age 11 or 12, or they may appear much later. If your child is strongly attached to you, they may not individuate much until college. Health issues, major life events, and other disruptions can also change the individuation timeline.

Surviving your teen’s individuation

Are you wondering how to improve your teen’s individuation process? Here are some ways you can help your teen individuate safely and naturally (while preserving your sanity):

Allow it to proceed naturally

It’s no reason for concern if your late teen still hasn’t shown many signs of individuation. Just give it time, and encourage the process whenever you do see it. Similarly, you should not attempt to slow the process down if it begins earlier than you expect.

Don’t take it personally

I have had upset parents say to me, “My child is rejecting my religion!” or “They are abandoning the sport they’ve been training in for years!” If something like this is happening to you, it is only natural that you would feel dismayed and disappointed. You may even feel betrayed or angry. In such cases, it is important to remember that your children are not supposed to be carbon copies of you. If they are ever to be truly happy, they must find their own way in the world (aided by the knowledge and moral foundation you have imparted to them, of course).

Reevaluate your expectations

If you are clinging to the belief that your child will do, achieve, or become a certain thing, it’s time to let that belief go. If you teach them valuable life skills through your own example, they will likely internalize much of that. However, a child is not a ball of clay just waiting to be formed. They are more like seeds that require good care to grow up strong. You can help ensure your child is safe, healthy, and happy, but they will make up their own mind regarding how they want to live their life.

Create a solid moral foundation

Teens’ tendency to become very self-involved and worry about how others perceive them can lead to ethical problems. Perhaps your teen is gossiping about other girls at school or engaging in risky behaviors in a desperate attempt to fit in. You must encourage them to consider the moral implications and consequences of their actions, both now and in the future. At the same time, you must also. . .

Empathize with your teen

You may not care whether your teen has the same cool T-shirt as all of his friends, but you better believe it is important to him. Understanding individuation as you do, you recognize how important it is for your teen to feel comfortable with their appearance. If they invest a lot of time in it and get upset at perceived inadequacies, validate their feelings rather than brushing them off.

Encourage positive peer relationships

As long as you feel confident that your teen is in a safe environment, allow them to spend time with their peers. It may feel like they spend all of their time with their friends (when they’re not shut up in their rooms, of course), but this will likely subside as they feel more secure in their own identities.

Set reasonable boundaries

Don’t just chalk it up to individuation if your child engages in self-harming, using alcohol/drugs, or taking part in other risky activities. Kindly but firmly intervene by letting them know what is and is not acceptable. At the same time, leave room for your teen’s growing autonomy by avoiding placing too many rules on them. As they navigate challenges and make mistakes, they will acquire skills that they’ll need as adults. Learn how to set teen boundaries and consequences here.

Support your teen as an individual

Rather than always providing the answer when your teen encounters a challenge, ask them how they think it should be handled. Bring up possible ethical issues and get their thoughts on them. You can also compliment your teen on their choices and accomplishments whenever you get the opportunity.


Adolescent individuation is rife with change and conflict. If you could use some help getting through your teen’s individuation, consider having your teen come in for therapy. Our resident teen therapist will quickly build a rapport with your teen that will result in a supportive and transformational experience. For more information on raising a successful teen, visit our teenage counseling page, or book a free 20-minute phone call with Dr. Jenifer Goldman, our adolescent specialist.