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What Adolescent Disembedding Is & Why It’s So Often Confused with Family Estrangement

·663 words·4 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

It’s broadly known that teenagers become rebellious. Even the sweetest children often have a phase in adolescence where they test the limits set upon them. And many kids at this point will also arbitrarily and suddenly decide at this point as well that even parents they were formerly close to are now tragically uncool.

It’s so common a phenomenon that it’s a trope. It’s expected that teenagers will do this.

This is known in adolescent psychology as “disembedding” and has been explored thoroughly by Mark McConville.

Adolescent disembedding is the stage in which adolescents first start to form boundaries with their families in order to begin to understand and assert their own individual identity. The point at this stage isn’t just to reject family enmeshment — it is also to enable the adolescent to begin to learn how to seek support from the world outside of their family. (An important part of being a fully functional adult.)

Is it annoying to parents? Yes. But it’s also a stage that is important, healthy, and normal.

And it doesn’t last.

When Family Estrangement in Adult Children Is Mistaken for Prolonged Adolescent Disembedding

“Well, wait a second, Page,” some of you might be saying, “that’s not true at all. It does last sometimes. I know plenty of adults who aren’t close to their parents or the rest of their family. Adults who are estranged.”

I’m here to tell you that family estrangement is _different _than adolescent disembedding. However, it’s a sad fact that a lot of people confuse family estrangement for the developmentally normal family rejection of adolescents.

I actually write about this phenomenon in my novel Psychic City. It comes up because eideticist Viv Lee has a difficult relationship with her mother (and psychic empath Karen Cross is estranged from both parents):

…[they] understood how easy it was for people to mistake the rejection found in dysfunctional parental dynamics with the normal ebb and flow of adolescent disembedding, the fount of most teen rebellion, a developmental stage in which adolescents create emotional distance from their parents in order to better understand their emerging self.

It was easy for some to confuse a teen’s “ew, Mom, I’m not anything like my mom,” with Viv’s need to create distance from someone who had repeatedly harmed her and others around her.

As a result, people often mistook her state of semi-estrangement as a sign that Viv was immature. That she’d never developed beyond a teenage level of understanding her mother. Because of this, they were quick to suggest that she repair that connection. That she throw herself into a full-fledged mother-daughter bonding.

They didn’t realize how strenuous and difficult the little contact Viv had with her mother was.

Don’t Get It Twisted. They Are Not the Same.

Anyway, I see it a lot in everyday life — how people with limited firsthand experience with family estrangement make this leap so easily. This is because adolescent disembedding is even more common than family estrangement (and lots of people who don’t understand estrangement have experience with disembedding, and they’re more likely to default to comparing the unknown to something they know — or even mistake the unfamiliar thing for the familiar one). And I also see how insulting it can be for people who are estranged from their families that other people default to assuming that the reason they keep their distance is just good ole adolescent disembedding (prolonged well past the teen years) when it’s not.

People who are estranged from family usually have good reasons that are private/unpleasant to talk to others about ( please see points #1 and #2 in this list, as well as the study cited in #2 if you’re curious).


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.



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