A Reminder of Transactional Analysis Theory

This is a brief reminder of Eric Berne’s theories of Transactional Analysis. If you are finding yourself in difficult situations at work, or personally, it can be helpful sometimes to just ask, ‘Who is responding? Me as adult, my inner child or my parent’? And then ask, ‘is that appropriate for this situation?’

Transactional Analysis is one of the most easily understood theories of modern psychology. Transactional Analysis was developed by Eric Berne, and his famous ‘parent adult child’ theory is still being further developed today.


Transactional Analysis has a wide variety of applications in clinical, therapeutic, organizational and personal development, covering communications, management, personality, relationships and behaviour.  It is a really helpful theory whether you are in a professional role, or just want to understand yourself a little better. I often use it on my courses as a way of helping people to understand their behaviour, particularly around change. It’s also very helpful in coaching and one to one work.

The Roots

In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud proposed that the human psyche is multi-faceted, and that each of us has ‘warring’  parts in our subconscious. New theories continue to be put forward, all concentrating on the principle idea that we each have parts of our personality which emerge at times and affect our behaviour according to different circumstances.

Eric Berne

In the 1950’s Eric Berne began to develop his theories of Transactional Analysis. He said that verbal communication, particularly face to face, is at the centre of human social relationships and psychoanalysis.

Transactional Analysis became the method of examining the transaction as in: ‘I do something to you, and you do something back’. Put simply, it’s just a way of looking at how we communicate.

The Three Ego States

Berne also said that each person is made up of three alter ego states:


These terms have different definitions in T.A. than in normal language.

This is our ingrained voice of authority, absorbed conditioning, learning and attitudes from when we were young. We were conditioned by our real parents, teachers, older people, next door neighbours, aunts and uncles, Father Christmas and so on.

Our Parent is made up of a huge number of hidden and overt recorded playbacks. Typically our parent uses phrases and attitudes starting with ‘how to’, ‘under no circumstances’, ‘always’ and ‘never forget’, ‘don’t lie, cheat, steal’, etc, etc. Our parent is formed by external events and influences upon us as we grow through early childhood. We can change it, but this is easier said than done. I sometimes call this your ‘internal mail’. It might be that nagging little voice that puts you down when you think of trying something new, for example. Or puts others down…

Our internal reaction and feelings to external events form the ‘Child’. This is the seeing, hearing, feeling, and emotional states within each of us. When anger or despair dominates reason, the Child is in control. Like our Parent we can change it, but it is no easier. We can be a ‘good’ child or a ‘naughty’ child. When another person’s behaviour is predominately in the style of ‘critical parent’ , for example, we may find our inner child responding, not the adult.

When we are experiencing a change over which we have no control we may revert to childlike behaviour, like in the workplace. Rather than dealing with what confronts us, asking questions, making decisions etc, old fears surface and we may revert to unhelpful ways of behaving. But child can also be joyful, like when you do something with total abandon and immerse yourself in fun!

Our ‘Adult’ , so the theory goes, is our ability to think and determine action for ourselves, based on received information. The theory says that the adult in us begins to form at around ten months old, and is the means by which we keep our Parent and Child under control. If we are to change our Parent or Child we must do so through our adult. In adult behaviour we are dealing with the here and now, the facts as they are.

If someone begins to behave with you from their child perspective, you may find yourself, without realising it, responding in your parent mode, be that caring nurturing parent, or critical one! You can often see this played out in management/employee relationships.

Remember, it is only a theory. If it’s helpful to you, use it. If not, don’t worry about it!

Thinking of expanding your training business? I can help you. To find out more, click here.

You can find out more about this in Berne’s book, still in print and regularly reprinted, Games People Play. You can get it via Amazon by clicking the link, good bookshops, and of course, your local library!

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