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Transactional Analysis, Ego States and staying an Adult.

There is a very popular theory in the therapy-world called Transactional Analysis (TA).

TA was born in the 1950’s by Dr. Eric Byrne. Created as a theory about conversation (analysis) that could be understood by everyone.

It is a personal favourite of mine and I would like to share some of the introductory stage of it, the theoretical PAC model (Parent, Adult, Child). This model is something we can all learn from and see in ourselves and those around us.

Communication breakdown

A section of TA revolves around what are termed ‘States of Ego’; Parent Ego, Adult Ego and Child Ego (PAC), and describes how we communicate with others and our understanding of how others are communicating with us.

The goal of communication is said to be that we remain in ‘Adult’. That is, we are balanced in our thinking, we perceive conversations from a neutral (Adult) position and maintain an understanding of what we are delivering and what we are receiving in said communications.

Let’s take a look at the Ego States in brief:

(P) Parent ego state encompasses behaviour, thoughts and feelings derived from our parents or care givers.

Two Parent ego states are Nurturing Parent and Critical Parent. They are developed through our learned behaviour, perception and experience – when we learn and grow amongst our influential base environment, we observe, perceive and mimic (for most) what we receive as we have no other experience to base ourselves in life on.

  • Nurturing Parent (NP) – softer, unconditional acceptance, optimism, source of self-soothing and self-recognition

  • Critical Parent (CP) – prohibitive messages, monitoring adherence to rules, expectations of self and others

(A) Adult ego state - where we are able to think, communicate and act for ourselves based on the present moment.

We are able to listen and analyse both internally and externally a given situation or conversation. When in adult, we keep our Parent and Child egos ‘in check’.

(C) Child ego state - thinking, speaking and acting as we may have done as a child (learned behaviour).

We revert to childlike tactics be it tantrums, playfulness, pleading or perhaps even resignation. The learned behaviour or responses are aiming to generate a particular response from the receiver.

There are two main aspects of the Child ego – Adapted Child and Free Child.

  • Adapted Child (AC) – Makes emotional decisions about themselves and the world based on past and present drivers (drivers are things such as ‘be perfect’, ‘try hard’, ‘be strong’, ‘please others’) and injunctions (injunctions are things such as ‘don’t’ be a child’, ‘don’t exist’, ‘don’t be important’, ‘don’t’ enjoy’)

  • Free Child (FC) – Spontaneous, emotive, care-free and ‘in the moment’

(Berne, E. 1968)



For the purpose of keeping this post less than 5 pages long, I will describe conversation, for the most part, as the Parent, Adult and Child ego states.

Below is an example of a conversation where different ego states are applied in conversation. Notice how the best communication lies between Adult to Adult and mis-communication stems from a cross over between Parent-Parent, Child-Child or Parent-Child

Example A initial conversation: PARENT-PARENT

Friend A: Have you cleaned up that kitchen yet? I asked you twice already! (P)

Friend B in response: Why are you always carrying on?! (P)

Here Friend A starts a conversation in a way that simulates a parent talking to a child to which Friend B responds in the same way (parent to child)

Example B in response: ADULT-ADULT

Friend A in response: I didn’t mean to seem like I was carrying on. I just need the kitchen tidy for when the guests come. (A)

Friend B in response: Ok, let me finish up here and I will sort it out for you. (A)

Now, taking communication and thought to the here and now, the response moves into a more Adult ego state with both Friend A and Friend B speaking in more productive and helpful ways. The heat of the initial conversation is muted by acknowledging where each person is coming from, accepting responsibility and thus Friend A achieving a desired result.

Example C in response: PARENT-CHILD

Friend A: What are you talking about??! I have asked you too many times! Clean the kitchen, now! (CP)

Friend B: OK, I didn’t mean to disappoint you, again, Ill go and clean it right now, it won’t happen again. (AC)

Friend A continues to speak from the Critical Parent ego, not letting up on the demand to have the request fulfilled and continues to command where Friend B here now turns to Adapted Child ego, almost apologetic for disappointing their friend, yet again.

Example D in response: CHILD-CHILD

Friend B in response: Do it yourself I’m busy! (FC)

Friend A in response: Ok, I’ll do it if it makes things easier. (AC)

Now we are looking at Friend A and Friend B both stepping into Child ego states. Friend A (Adapted Child) is resigning to do the work themselves as it is not worth the fight and Friend B (Free Child) has no concern about the request or the outcome and disregards it altogether.

What does this mean?

From the last example we could potentially say that Friend A, the Adapted Child, has a history of avoiding conflict, perhaps terms such as ‘be good’, or ‘be perfect’ (drivers) and motives such as ‘don’t talk back’, or ‘don’t argue’ (injunctions) are instilled in them from childhood. It is simply easier for the job to be done by themselves.

Friend B however, the Free Child, may have never been expected to do anything helpful in childhood, perhaps they were either cared for by an overly Nurturing Parent, or the opposite, a Critical Parent who displayed a lack of service to anyone which subsequently has turned in to the learned behaviour of Friend B.

These are just assumptions, also fictitious characters talking about a kitchen that doesn’t really exist; but to make my point.

The aim here is to show how we can all switch into various ego states to achieve a desired end result. This can be done both consciously and subconsciously, however it is possible, with the knowledge, we can control a conversation and outcome by being aware of ourselves and aware of others ego states at any given time.

In business, we can use this knowledge quite skilfully in negotiation. In day-to-day, we can avoid conflict and frustration just by observing ours and others ego state and consciously bringing ourselves to adult in the aim of it being matched.

In knowledge is power and in this case the power is to achieve results through this transactional analysis.

Next time you are part of a conversation, see if you can observe the way it is being directed, maybe even test its use by learning to stay in Adult and see where it takes you?