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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Bait and Switch Behavior

Q. My ex-husband writes our 14-year-old son about once every 6-8 weeks. My ex asks our son to call him. After I suggest to our son to call, he does and almost always my ex hangs up on him. In the past two years they have made plans to do about 7 or 8 activities. Most of these activities don't happen, and he blames our son. Our son's psychologist calls this "bait and switch".

I have never heard of anyone treating anybody, especially a kid, in this manner. I was always afraid not to have my son respond to his dad because his dad's lawyer often threatened "alienation" and court action. Although my son has some wonderful male role models, I still worry about all that ugly, emotional garbage that he has experienced. Fortunately, after the last "bait and switch," my son said he was now ready to speak with a professional.

Do you have any information about this type of personality and ways to battle the destructive effects it has on a child? Can you suggest any readings as well?

A. This sounds like a very painful situation for you and your son--and it wouldn't surprise me if it were also painful for your ex, even though I do not for a minute condone or excuse his behavior. Unfortunately, you probably won't be able to undo the emotional effects that divorce, and your ex's behavior, have on your son. But, you can help create the kind of supportive and nurturing environment that will minimize the destructive effects of these events. And when bad things happen, you can be a source of empathy and reassurance to your son.

As far as your ex's personality--it's very hard for me to comment without knowing whether his unreliable/ambivalent behavior toward your son is typical of his personality style prior to your divorce; or whether this behavior reflects your ex's maladaptive response to the trauma of the divorce. It's certainly possible that your ex is simply showing his usual--maybe even life-long--pattern of irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, several studies have shown that divorce has serious adverse effects on fathers, including depression, psychosomatic problems, and mood swings. It may be that your ex is struggling with feelings of guilt or self-reproach that he simply can't (or won't) deal with in a mature fashion. After all, it's easier to hang up on your son than to confront one's perceived failure as a father. Again--all this may explain your ex's behavior, but it does not excuse it.

How to deal with this emotional garbage? I think your son's seeing a mental health professional is an excellent step. And while your son's therapist may have certain confidentiality restrictions that limit what he or she can share with you, you might still ask the therapist how you can best support and help your son. In the mean time, it may be useful to sit down with your son from time to time, check in with how he is feeling, and--without pushing--asking if there is any way you could be helpful. Letting your son know that it is not his fault when his father doesn't follow through may also be important.

On the other hand, vilifying your ex will not set a good example for your son. Encouraging your son to develop interests and activities outside the home that boosts his self-esteem and confidence will also be helpful--anything that helps him feel respected in general will help counteract the destructive effects of these "bait and switch" maneuvers.

For example, you can encourage him to become involved in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, etc. You may also be interested in a number of books on the general topic of how to cope with the emotional and legal aftermath of divorce; e.g., Helping Children Cope With Divorce, by Dr. Edward Teyber. There is also a very helpful website with hundreds of links, called www.divorcesource.com. This has message centers that will allow you to vent some of your own feelings and get some constructive feedback from others going through similar difficulties.

November 2002

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