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How Parents Can Have Less Drama, More Fun!

Neuroscience-backed improv tips to turn parenting pitfalls into possibilities.

Key points

  • Improvisation helps us read and respond to the emotional changes in our children faster and more effectively.
  • Accepting the offer leads to a deeper understanding of children's changing body-budget needs.
  • Staying in scene works most effectively for children who live and breathe on the stage of play.
  • Staying with an ensemble cast teaches everybody about the wisdom of co-regulation.
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

What parent isn't burnt out by the buzzing, boisterous, and ever-changing energies of children? Like a game of Whack-A-Mole, we figure out one need, and another clocks us in the face. When the inevitable tantrum arrives, we think we're so smart and can defuse it or pull rank to make it all better. When that doesn't work, everybody is upset, and drama careens towards tragedy.

Neuroscience is backing up a new way of negotiating these situations, and surprisingly, improvisation is the key. Why? Because emotions don't just happen; they are based on sophisticated and ever-shifting predictions that we're all making, and improvising helps us read and work these changes a whole lot smarter and faster than our lumbering, logical, left-brained response.

Even better, when we connect to improv's main tenets, we honor and embrace our children's deepest needs and learn more about them than we ever would have by merely managing their behavior.

Three simple tips from improv can make us more responsive, connected, and creative again, no matter what we're facing.

1. Say Yes and Accept the Offer.

All improv actors know that when your scene partner says you're in a spaceship, you don't say they're wrong and that you're really on a farm in Kansas. As irrational and wild as you think the idea is, your job is to accept the offer and say yes. This goes for your child, too, even when their request—or, more likely, their demand—at first blush appears totally ridiculous.

We're quick to think we know better or that our children's initial bids are just immature, but so often, children are trying to tell us something deep if we'd only listen and play along.

On a recent beach trip, I noticed this with my 4-year-old son. We had spent about two hours out in the sun, and while he loved digging in the sand and searching for shells, all of a sudden, he adamantly asked to go to the grocery store. It seemed like a strange idea. Why would anybody want to go inside on a beautiful day and look for food when we already had so much at our rental house? Something in me said, "He's trying to tell me more." And so, happily, I accepted the offer.

As soon as we got to the store, it all became clear. He was overheating, and his psyche improvised the best option he could find to get cooler faster. He also felt in his element again, driving the cart and having his own adventures to pursue instead of lazily sitting on the beach, an activity only adults can really enjoy for hours on end. The grocery store bid was his way of saying, "My needs are changing, and I want you to notice them, and I know best."

In her new book Brain-Body Parenting, Mona Delahooke talks about the significance of tuning into your child's body budget, noticing in what ways they are depleted and how you can help them feel nourished again. Are they hungry, tired, overstimulated, bored, or a combination special?

Improvisation helps you notice and respond quickly and creatively to what's at stake before your logical brain even gets it, and that is its special power. It also helps model and teach children the art of co-regulation, how to healthily rely on each other to help us name, contain, and express our deepest needs, feelings, and thoughts.

2. Don't Break the Fourth Wall.

An actor is rarely supposed to break the fourth wall, the imaginary wall that separates the actors and the story from the real world as symbolized by the audience. Doing so takes us out of the magic of why we come to the theater—to feel as if we are seeing ourselves but at a safe enough distance to play from afar—and cuts off a deeper connection to each other and the world.

Play therapist and author Eliana Gil reminds us that with children, we are best served to stay within the metaphor and symbol of what they present without commenting on its connection to reality. The grocery store wasn't just an actual place for my son: It was a metaphor for refreshment, adventure, and novelty. He could cruise up and down the aisles to find all sorts of interesting, new options in stark contrast to his passive and monotonous experience of the beach.

Nothing would have ruined our scene more than if I broke the fourth wall and started making that link: "Oh, I see you want to cool down and have all the possibilities at your fingertips instead of this just more and more repetitive sand!" Nothing could fall flatter and become less embodied than moving outside of the symbol itself, and this is precisely what improv does. It keeps us in the magic moment of things and allows us to embody it together.

Instead of talking about the grocery store, I leaned into the excitement and interest of getting there and enjoying our experience together. I trusted that the metaphor and symbol would yield its answers and secrets to us if only I followed it along.

Stay within the particular symbol, image, or metaphor embedded in the request or demand that your child throws at you, and see what you can make of it together. Odds are, this will not only lessen the inevitable tug of war that so often happens, but it will also yield surprising new insights into what you didn't realize was happening deep inside your child.

3. Don't Shoot for Best Actor: Go for Best Ensemble Cast.

Lest we forget, it's not just about taking care of our child: It's also about tending to ourselves and our partner, too. The improv approach makes sure the ensemble cast is always at the center of our decision-making process as parents, and yet, it also enables us to find our individual voices together. It prizes the beauty and power of co-regulation, the amazingly flexible human capacity to support each other at our best and worst, and to come away with something more by allowing ourselves to be interdependent.

The grocery excursion gave my wife the opportunity to take a break from her role as a mother and provided her space for relaxation, solitude, and contemplation. For me, it became a special bonding trip with my son and an opportunity to revel in his emerging capacity to follow and articulate his own feelings and needs. The best part, however, was the way it surprised us all in how the day unfolded, enabling us to care for and tend to ourselves and each other in more individually responsive and sensitive ways.

Learning how to playfully improvise our way through tangles, we teach our children more than we imagined possible. Improvisation honors the wisdom and brilliance of our unique regulating system and taps us into its special language. By tuning into it, we all become more creative together and transform ordinary moments of struggle and challenge into new scenes of connection and possibility. Best of all, you just might have a whole lot more fun being a parent (and child) again too!

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