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The Improvisational Parent

Why rolling with it really works.

Key points

  • The main yet hidden job of parenting is improvisation.
  • Improvisation helps us more quickly and effectively befriend our children's nervous system.
  • Improvisation continually asks and answers: What's their motivation?
  • Improvisation prevents unnecessary stress and helps us bond more deeply and creatively with our children.
Source: Pexels

"Life is a lot like jazz. It's best when you improvise."--George Gershwin

When my four-year old son starts repeating phrases and his hands become nunchucks, I know his hunger is speaking louder than words. When he's sizing up which ball to launch across the living room after he's fully recharged from watching television, he's ready to mobilize healthy, boisterous fun. When he's pouting and words don't do his feelings justice, he's disappointed or sad that something has gone wrong, and it's likely me who inadvertently triggered it.

Mastering the Art of Improvisation

Our main job as parents is mastering the art of improvisation, learning which way our child's emotions are shifting and reading the changes like an old jazz hand. Has our child quickly descended into hunger, boredom, overstimulation, fatigue, restlessness, or some combination thereof? These are the harmonies that change no matter the melody, and our mission is to play through them so we keep making music together.

If you prefer comedy improv, the task is to accept every offer no matter whether it is sadness, anger, delight, frustration, or "I don't even know what this is yet." Just as empathy doesn't mean you endorse every bid, rolling with it doesn't mean you are loving or even agreeing with everything. Instead, you're maintaining a deep level of trust to safely explore things together.

This allows us to more deeply know our children so that we recognize their unique ways of getting their needs met. And in the words of an improv master, it's also the surest way of "playing your way sane" (Drinko, 2019).

Polyvagal Theory in Action

Improvisation requires and thrives on profound trust. It's not only a trust in each other, it's in the deeper science of how we are built neurologically. Mona Delahooke's new book Brain-Body Parenting celebrates this and builds off polyvagal theory. Spearheaded by Stephen Porges (2011) and Deb Dana (2021), polyvagal theory showcases how we evolved, mobilizing and protective systems in place to assure that we are surviving and thriving. We can "befriend our nervous system" and use it for the kinds of joy, fulfillment, and creativity we always dream about.

Improvisation tunes us directly in to our nervous system's mysterious chords, helping us differentiate between calm; creative curiosity (green); our exhilarated, electrifying energy (green to red); our fight-flight stress responses (red); and our shutdown moments (blue). Not only for acting or music, improvisation is essential if we want to have any success—and a whole lot of fun—-in parenting and reliving the best of childhood with those lovely, vexing creatures we call our own.

Why Improvise?

How and why should we improvise with our children? We'll read our children so much more accurately and discover new possibilities that allow us to be fantastic scene partners together if we do (O'Connell, 2019). Even better, we'll notice the subtle needs and wants of our children before they explode into full-throttle tantrums and outbursts. Think of improvisation as that proactive plan and insurance policy..

Recognizing that improvisation is the rule rather than the exception is key to parenting from the inside out; it assures that we are reading the nervous system's signals accurately and responding from the source, rather than shooting the messenger. Delahooke notes that we don't often think like this and instead focus on behavioral issues: What should the consequence be for this misbehavior? When should we implement the time-out? Or, Why did my child change so dramatically from an angel to a monster?

What's Their Motivation?

Improvisation keeps us grounded in feeling and in the body, and it continually asks the proverbial actor's question about our children: What's their motivation? Improvisation lends us and them more compassion and curiosity, and in so doing, it opens up a whole new stage together to make everyday challenges and possibilities sing with the kind of beauty we only experience in art itself.

Hope this helps you accept your child's invitation no matter what unexpected bid they throw at it you next!


Dana, D. (2021). Anchored: How to befriend your nervous system using polyvagal theory. Sounds True.

Delahooke, M. (2022). Brain-body parenting: How to stop managing behaviour and start raising joyful, Resilient Kids. SHELDON PRESS.

Drinko, C. (2021). Play your way sane: 120 improv-inspired exercises to help you calm down, stop spiraling, and embrace uncertainty. Tiller Press.

O'Connell, M. (2019). The performing art of therapy: Acting insights and techniques for clinicians. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. W.W. Norton.

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