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Unlocking Mental Well-being: iflow Psychology
Your Trusted Resource for Psychological Support

Your Sydney Psychologists, Australia.

Difficult Teenager? ... or Differentiating from Family?


If you've got a teenager who seems more interested in pizza than curfew, you may be tempted to think that he or she is just being difficult. But what if I told you that your teen is actually behaving no differently to other kids their age? How do you manage this issue?

Let me explain. Many parents think of this behavior as misbehavior, but it's actually differentiating from the family and developing into an independent adult.

What is Differentiation?

When you hear the term differentiation, you probably think of your child's need to separate from you. You might imagine that it's just a phase they're going through. Then they'll be back in touch with reality. This is not so!

Differentiation is a process of separating out from the family. This is not wrong or bad. It is normal for adolescents to differentiate themselves from their parents (or guardians). The ability to think and feel for oneself (differentiation) is a sign of normal adolescent growth and development. It means that your teen is developing an identity as an individual separate from his or her family members.

Differentiation refers to the ability to stand on one's own two feet without having to rely on someone else all the time. It is about becoming physically, emotionally and psychologically independent. These abilities are essential if one wants healthy functioning relationships throughout life.

Common Beliefs that Hinder Differentiation

  • Family is the center of the universe.

  • Family is where all good things come from.

  • Family is where all bad things come from.

  • If you have a problem, your family (or some member of it) caused it, and they can fix it for you.

  • Your family is perfect and never makes mistakes or does anything wrong. If something goes wrong in your life, it must be because someone else has done something to cause you trouble. It is not because anything about your family might be imperfect or flawed in any way whatsoever!

These are faulty beliefs. No family is perfect. To truly love your family, and develop normally, you have to acknowledge and accept family weaknesses, as well as strengths.

Why is Differentiating Important?

So, why is differentiating important?

Differentiation is a stage of normal development. Just as your teens need to learn how to walk, talk, and feed themselves (all things that you’ve mastered), they also need to learn how to take on new responsibilities and make decisions for themselves. Differentiating from parents helps them accomplish this.

Differentiation allows your teen to develop their own identity independent of you and your family. This means that even though your teen might share some commonalities with you, they can still develop their own interests, values, and overall sense of self without being completely dependent on you or other members of the family unit. This isn’t always easy! By encouraging teens' independence during early adolescence (i.e., when it matters most), we give them an opportunity when they're older not only survive but thrive in adulthood despite all the challenges life has thrown their way thus far.

Tips to Promote Differentiation

  • Give your teenager time and space to be alone

  • Encourage your teenager to have friends over

  • Encourage your teenager to have a job - A part-time job can help provide income while they are learning how the world works. Work provides an opportunity to test their limits and figure out what they want from life. If they don't like it? It's not too late for them to start looking for another one!

Instead of thinking of your teenager as a difficult person, think of them as someone in the midst of differentiating from the family and developing their identity.

Understanding Teenagers

  • Instead of thinking of your teenager as a difficult person, think of them as someone in the midst of differentiating from the family and developing their identity.

  • Think about how you were at that age and would you have liked to be told to do things differently? Probably not! Be there for them to offer guidance rather than control.

  • You can still set limits for your teenager, but do it with gentleness, understanding and respect for who they are becoming and not how you want them to be.

Other Reasons Why Teenagers Can Be Difficult?

There are also other reasons why teenagers may exhibit difficult behaviors. Some possible causes include:

1. Puberty

The physical and hormonal changes of puberty can affect a teenager's mood, behavior, and overall well-being.

2. Developmental Changes

Adolescence is a time of rapid developmental change, and teenagers may struggle to adapt to these changes.

3. Stress and Pressure

Teenagers may face a variety of stressors, such as academic pressure, social challenges, and family conflicts.

4. Mental Health Issues

Some teenagers may struggle with mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma, which can manifest as difficult behaviors.

5. Lack of Structure and Boundaries

Teenagers may test limits and boundaries as they seek independence and autonomy.

6. Negative Influences

Peer pressure and exposure to negative influences, such as drugs or unhealthy relationships, can contribute to difficult behaviors in teenagers.

It's important to note that these are just a few of the many potential reasons why teenagers may be difficult, and it's important to consider the unique needs and circumstances of each individual teenager.

How Can a Psychologist Help with Parenting a Difficult Teenager?

A psychologist can help parents of a 'difficult teenager' by providing support, guidance, and strategies for managing challenging behaviours. Some specific ways in which a psychologist can help include:

  1. Assessing the teenager's needs: A psychologist can conduct a thorough evaluation to identify the underlying causes of the teenager's difficult behaviors and recommend appropriate interventions.

  2. Providing guidance and support: A psychologist can work with parents to develop a plan for addressing the teenager's behaviors and provide support as the parents implement this plan.

  3. Teaching coping skills: A psychologist can help parents and the teenager develop coping skills and strategies for managing stress, anxiety, and other emotions that may be contributing to difficult behaviours.

  4. Improving communication: A psychologist can teach parents and the teenager how to communicate more effectively and resolve conflicts in a healthy way.

  5. Providing family therapy: A psychologist can work with the entire family to address any underlying family dynamic issues that may be contributing to the teenager's behaviors.

Overall, a psychologist can provide valuable support and guidance to parents of a difficult teenager as they work to understand and manage the teenager's behaviors.


Whether your teenager is difficult or not, the most important thing is to support them. This can be difficult, especially when we don’t understand why they are acting this way. But remember, even if you don’t agree with their choices or think it’s wrong that they want to do something different from the family, it doesn't mean they're bad people. They just want to differentiate from us because that's what teens need in order to grow up into happy adults who know who they are and where they belong in the world.

Help is Available

If you, or a family member, are experiencing difficulty, support is available. Please contact iflow psychology today or book an appointment.

You can book an appointments online, or by calling my friendly admin staff on 02 6061 1144.

iflow psychology offers in-person, telehealth and telephone counselling. We are registered psychologists. We also offer Medicare Rebates when you have a doctors referral and Mental Health Plan. We would love to be part of your journey.

Location Details: iflow psychology is located in Leichhardt Inner West Sydney NSW Australia


  • The information provided in this article is for information purposes only.

  • It is always advisable to speak with your treating doctor, health professionals, and legal representatives before making decisions.

  • This is particularly important if you have: health concerns; existing mental health or medical conditions; or feel you are not coping.

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