Why homeless mothers seem manipulative

“She’s not in touch with reality”, “She’s working the system”, “She is chosing money over her children”, “I offered her help but she went running to a man!”, and “She doesn’t want help, she just wants attention”.

As a Social Worker, Sociologist, and volunteer – I heard all of these this week. It is easy and even mildly entertaining to villainize mothers who don’t react to services and help in positively responsive ways. Mothers who don’t comply with the “system” in place and make choices that are not part of the visible path to resolving her families poverty – to use plain language: they can drive us crazy.

Blaming these mothers won’t solve the issue. Understanding them is the first part of manipulating her right back to productive actions and choices.

Severe trauma and stress will warp your thinking. I call it “A natural reaction to an unnatural situation”. Following social norms, trusting the usual people and behaving normally didn’t keep her “safe”. She may turn to alternative means and relationships to find her safety. She will lie to her “workers and case managers” and  hide her true agenda.

She heard all the normal fairy tales . “A dream is a wish your heart makes”-Disney.  She was pretty and successfully lured  the man who was supposed to provide for her and their child. Sometimes she tried this several times with different men because she thought it was the man who was defective , not her dream. Snow White and Cinderella can cook and clean, and Belle read a lot – but none of them had full-time minimum wage jobs and children sleeping in shelter beds.

As a Social Worker, my plan is for this mother to achieve self-sufficiency and be  able to provide housing, food, financial and emotional support for herself and children. She may sign a contract that requires her to work toward my goals for her life – but chances are that she is still holding on to the dream emotionally and will pursue it in every spare moment.  And, when faced with choosing between going into residential drug treatment or staying in a bad and possibly dangerous situation where she can keep seeing her newest  boyfriend . . .   most of the time she is going to pursue the man.

Relying on others: a man, her family, social workers, etc, to do the work and put in the effort to place her into safe and permanent housing is always the EASY way out. You and I may find it terrifying to submissively rely on someone else to order our lives. the woman, however is not taking any risks and can not fail if the plan fails. It is always someone else’s fault and she doesn’t have to  account for her status.

I have found this  true in domestic violence situations as well. Even with witnesses, medical reports and visible wounds: it is easier and emotionally more pleasant to deny that the abuse is real. it is as much a coping skill to protect her from facing the harsh reality of the situation as it is a cop-out.  This belief also allows the woman to rationalize staying in the situation where she can continue to depend on someone else to provide for her family.

———————————————————- HOW DO YOU FIX THAT?———————-

I am not glad you asked because I don’t have a really good answer, However, I will tell you what I have found to be successful strategies.

1.When we discuss goals: let HER tell you her goals before you ever tell her what your goals for her are. In fact, if you can get away without ever telling her that you have a professional or personal agenda: go with that plan. Very few people respond well to taking orders, and like children we rebel.

2. Treat her as if she is already exceeding your expectations. Professionals will call it “mirroring” or “reflective thinking”. I think of it as “feeding her ego”. When i call or answer my phone I try to sound enthusiastic and pleased to hear from her. When she visits the office I greet her with a smile and warmth my friends would expect. (sometimes, if the meeting  long or broaches  uncomfortable topics, I offer basic hostess hospitality such as something to drink and snack on).

3. Change her focus. Women will sell themselves short and become accustomed to not being a priority in their lives – but  children are another issue all together.

“How will you decorate your daughter’s room when you get an apartment?”

“I know he is not abusive. Do your sons ever ask about your bruises? How do you ensure their safety?”

“When my daughter was in sixth grade she had to write an essay about me. What will your children write about you?”

4. Forgiveness, patience, explanation of the services and her responsibilities , and repeat, and repeat and repeat until it either works or she quits you.

6 thoughts on “Why homeless mothers seem manipulative

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