For many of us parenting or otherwise supporting vulnerable young people, scaffolding is something we get used to putting up and taking down regularly, as the needs of our children change.
Recently, in some strange convergence of real and metaphorical life, as I was mentally putting up the family scaffolding, our house (the real one) was being covered in the stuff. Bizarre. Scaffolding everywhere you looked.
The storms blew in through our family in September as the long, carefree summer holiday ended and the words ‘this is the most important year of your life’ thundered around the heavens. ‘You’ll regret not working when you open your exam results’. ‘You’re one of the older ones, you should be setting a good example’. I’m sure you get the gist.
This is the start of Year 10. Goodness only knows what Year 11 is going to be like.
It’s tempting to voice that worn out rhetoric (and I have) but it’s like taking a wrecking ball to the confidence and self-esteem of a vulnerable young person who both expects and fears failure in equal measure.
Trying to frighten them into working harder can (rather counter intuitively for some), have the opposite effect. Delivering the same messages louder and harder only makes things worse.
So whilst three hard-working men erected scaffolding around our crumbling house, I got on the phone to our post-adoption support worker. We talked through the right approaches to take with what had become some worrying behaviours.
She shored me up and enabled me in turn to shore up my son. I was then able to go into school and help them put scaffolding in place there too. Things steadied almost immediately, perhaps because we’d acted quickly and made the right judgment call about what was needed.
All of us need supporting from time to time. For vulnerable young people, support in the form of practical help, time and understanding has to be there when they need it.
Sometimes it will have to be put in place very rapidly indeed. Vulnerable young people can crumble quickly and lots of good work can be undone.
What I’ve been reminded of lately is how even a small amount of well-targeted, extra support, can steady a potentially perilous situation. As children get older, they may give all the outward signs of not wanting our support, but they still need it, it just might look different.
When it’s used well, support, or scaffolding, or whatever you call it, can be put in place quickly and then removed slowly and carefully, one piece at a time. If the building wobbles then the support goes back in place again. If it doesn’t, we may wait a while before carefully taking some more away.
It may never be possible to remove the scaffolding entirely, but perhaps enough to reveal something very beautiful and resilient underneath.
My house is still covered in scaffolding and will be for another couple of weeks. Soon the walls and windows will be repaired, the fascias painted, the guttering cleaned and the cracked roof tiles replaced.
It will stand up to a few more winters of wind and rain, and so will we.
Sally Donovan is an adoptive parent, author and award-winning columnist