Parenting

Positive Parenting in the Time of Coronavirus

Improv offers strategies and tools to help parents connect.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

 Max Flatow, used with permission
Author Clay Drinko, Ph.D., with daughter Ella
Source: Photo Credit: Max Flatow, used with permission

I’m the primary caregiver for our three-year-old daughter, Ella. My husband’s been holed up in our home office working remotely, doing his best to bring home the bacon in an extremely difficult economy.

But six months without daycare, school, babysitters, and the usual activities to pass the time has been challenging to say the least. Parents are struggling with homeschooling, no time off, and no end in sight. So I reached out to three positive parenting experts to get their take on what parents should do in the time of coronavirus to connect with their children.

Improv Parenting to Improve Parenting

I reached out to psychologist Dr. Tamara Soles and Psychotherapist Dr. Cory and Speech-Language Pathologist Kate, a husband-wife team at Be a Problem Solver Services, about how parents can use improv as a positive parenting tool. Dr. Soles explains:

Many of the core principles of improv are absolutely supportive of parenting children at any age. The idea of collaboration is one that any parent can benefit from. It’s easy to get mired in power struggles with our kids—but when we embrace collaboration, including in problem solving, we stay connected to our children and we are much more likely to be effective in holding limits and getting done what needs to be done.

Similarly, the idea that we engage with our improv partner without judgment is one that when applied to parenting, allows children to thrive and makes it more likely that children develop a belief that they can try new things and take risks without fear of failure or judgment. Of course, any time we are connecting with our children, particularly in playful ways, we strengthen our relationship and create the foundation upon which collaboration and discipline are built. And who doesn’t like a family game that can be played any time anywhere and doesn’t involve endless games of I-Spy?

One of the best predictors of future emotional well-being is having a secure attachment with a caregiver as a child. The key ingredient of a secure attachment is attunement—the ability to read and respond to a child’s cues. Improv games help parents and children slow down and attune to each other. 

Kate and Dr. Cory described this kind of attunement—reading and responding to someone else’s cues—in terms of flexibility. They say:

Improv also increases flexibility. Imagine you walk into a scene with a partner, and you just have to roll with what they give you. In real life, as a parent, I wake up in the day, I say, I have these plans. But then my son comes in with his own agenda, and we have to be flexible to roll together. Maybe that’s me rolling with him being moody, sometimes it means enjoying him while he explores something new.

I know I experience this kind of flexibility and attunement with my daughter when I stop being so stubborn with how I want my daughter to act and start being open to her current mental and emotional state.

For example, if my daughter Ella is crying and screaming, it doesn’t help to tell her to stop. She is sad or frustrated. That’s where she’s at. It’s comparable to being in an improv scene with someone. If they say, “Hey, Fred, you look exhausted,” I need to go along with that reality. My name is Fred, and I’m tired. If I agree and add onto the scene, we can move forward and explore new facets of our relationship and environment. Likewise, when I agree with my daughter’s reality that she is sad and explore that reality, she’s more likely to feel seen and heard and valued.

Why Improv Helps Parents with Connection

Dr. Soles thinks that improv is especially useful for more positive parenting for a wide range of reasons. Improv helps parents connect with their children, and it’s playful, free of judgment, and helps participants live more in the moment and reduce anxiety.

She emphasizes the simplicity and accessibility of simple improv games. When I’m struggling with Ella, I don’t have the time or the bandwidth to get theoretical. Instead, improv games don’t require preparation or equipment. I can simply look into my daughter’s eyes and agree with her reality, “Yes, that is sad. You seem so upset.”

It can also help during happier times. We can play follow the leader or word at a time story, and, because improv demands so much that we focus on the other person in the scene, we aren’t in our heads. Instead, we are really focused on each other, which is essential for attunement. Combine that with improv’s prerequisite fun and playfulness and you have a recipe for connection and healthy attachment.

Kate and Dr. Cory also add that improv is beneficial because it breaks us out of negative feedback loops. Because improv requires us to agree and add on and be open to our partner’s ideas, we begin to create new neural pathways and more positive habits of thought.

And I’ve seen this firsthand with Ella. I’ve developed 120 improv-inspired exercises I call Play Your Way Sane, which are all in the Simon & Schuster book currently available for pre-order. The exercises help develop twelve improv skills such as mindfulness, relaxation, reducing judgment, listening, yes and, embracing mistakes, and making big choices, and, like Dr. Soles stresses, they are fun, easy, and require no preparation. This helps Ella and I keep coming back to these exercises because they’re a fun way for us to strengthen attunement.

My favorite is called “Call It Like You Sees It.” Ella and I head outside and I point to things and name them. “Grass. Tree. Slug. House. Rake. Flower.” When I play this simple game with Ella, we both start to connect and start noticing more things about our environment. Suddenly, we’re no longer going on a walk to just get out of the house. Now, we’re explorers, really noticing and noting new things about our environment, things we wouldn’t have noticed if we had been overthinking, anxious, or disconnected.

2020 has been a long slog for parents so far. There’s a lot to deal with and no end in sight. I believe in the benefits of positive parenting, but, at the same time, I’m a realist. Life gets messy and parenting is hard. But improv has provided me the tools and language to be able to stop what I’m doing, calm the hell down, and play openly and wholeheartedly with my daughter. So much is up in the air right now, it’s nice to know that improv can still help us look into each other’s eyes, laugh together, and connect.

References

Drinko, Clay (2021). Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. New York: Simon & Schuster.