Emotional Attunement vs. Emotional Dissonance

A patient recently reported to me the following story: Her 20 year old daughter and friends got stuck in the building's elevator as the group was returning from a scavenger hunt, a party activity that was part of the girl's birthday celebration. The fire department had to be called to get them out. The next day, a neighbor who knew the party had taken place, asked my patient how the party went. The mother told her it had been great except for the part about the elevator. The neighbor responded, "Why didn't they take the stairs?" The mother was a bit flummoxed by this, and answered, "Well, I'm quite sure had they known the outcome in advance, they would have taken the stairs!" The neighbor repeated her question. The mother responded, "I guess they wished they had, once they were stuck." She walked off, puzzled and annoyed. Why didn't the neighbor ask, for example, "Were the kids OK?" "Did it take long to get them out?" These would be emotionally attuned responses.

The neighbor created what I am calling Emotional Dissonance. The emotional message behind the response has nothing to do with the emotional message underlying the first communication. There is, in fact, an implied criticism, the exact opposite of what might ordinarily be expected. The mother was annoyed and felt validated in her general sense of wanting to avoid contact with this neighbor. However, think about what effect such ongoing communications would have on a child. At the very least, confusion. At worst, feeling pretty crazy and doubtful of her own instinctual reactions.