Eric Berne, the pioneer of transactional analysis, made complex interpersonal transactions understandable when he recognised that the human personality is made up of three “ego states”. Each ego state is an entire system of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours from which we interact with one another. Parent, Adult and Child ego states and an interaction between them form the foundation of transactional analysis theory.

Ego states are a consistent pattern of thinking, feeling and behaviour. Berne’s tripartite model is an explanation of three main events that happen to all of us – childhood, the development of rational, logical thinking and exposure to parental or significant others’ influence.

It is the concept that each person has the potential for three fully functioning ego states that separates TA from other approaches. There are two basic models of ego states, the structural and the functional model. In order to differentiate between the two, remember the following:

  1. STRUCTURE refers to the building blocks/content of the ego states, answering questions – what are they; how are they made up?
  2. FUNCTION refers to a description and process of the ego states and their respective ways of behaving.

A basic concept of TA is that a knowledge and understanding of these ego-states gives choice over which to activate.

Parent Ego State

The Parent ego state is a collection of memories that have been recorded in early years. Parental and social expectations are logged into the brain as the person perceives them. The messages are sometimes verbal, sometimes experiential and sometimes only assumed.

Eric Berne used the word “tapes” for messages and believed that the “tapes” recorded in early childhood were the most influential. What were recorded are society’s expectations and obligations that are musts, shoulds and oughts. The parent ego state is filled with judgements, values and attitudes (Wollams & Brown, 1979). In psychoanalytic terms the “parent” ego state is much like the “superego” and is about values and right/wrong.

Functionally, the Parent ego state is subdivided into the Critical Parent and the Nurturing Parent. Nurturing Parent represents more affirming and more pleasant qualities of what parents and society do for a person. Critical Parent behaviours generally represent the corrective behaviours of real parents and the prohibitive messages of society.

Both Controlling and Nurturing Parent are acceptable, but could be grossly overdone. Positive aspects of CP and NP are visible in people’s ability to extract right from wrong, to make decisions supported within and fix mistakes without guilt. Negative aspects of CP and NP could damage psychological health where people replay messages from childhood, negative or overly protective.

Adult Ego State

This ego state is not related to the person’s age, more to a developmental state. It is a logical, rational way of contacting reality. The Adult ego state is “principally concerned with transforming stimuli into pieces of information and processing and filing that information on the basis of previous experience” (Berne, 1961). It is quite similar to a data-processing computer.

From the earliest recorded “tapes” of an introjected parent, the Adult calculates what action must be taken on the basis of that information. The Adult ego state is constantly updating its own processing and storage guidelines. Eventually, the Adult ego state (the central core computer of the personality) is able to integrate all three ego states with reality.

Child Ego State

Child is the first stage to develop and is crucial for the first 5 years of personality development. The Child is similar to the Freudian concept of Id, operating on the pleasure principle, unconscious, aimed at gratification and fulfilment of needs. Child is about expressing feelings and being intuitive.

Child is typified by “I” statements, “I want”, “I need” etc. Child ego state is a function of impulses and desires to find pleasure and be happy. It collects taped information in similar ways to the Adult ego state. The early cry for food (and protest of wetness) and the later playfulness is the function of the Child ego state.

Functionally, the Child ego-state is comprised of 2 aspects: The Natural (Free) Child that is spontaneous, intuitive, creative, pleasure seeker and the Adapted Child that is compliant and conforms to wishes and demands of others, particularly parents.

The Natural Child ego state represents a playful and spontaneous part of human behaviour, from infancy to an old age. The infant may receive enjoyment from playing with a spoon and the adult may find enjoyment from golfing or cruising in Tropical Queensland. A person may be 5 years old or 50 years old but throughout life he or she plays or can be playful or thinks playfully and joyously. That is the Natural Child doing its thing.

The Adapted Child ego state represents human response which has some negativity in it, some resistance, some reaction and some deeper hostility. A disobedient child, a rebellious teenager and a person with a personality disorder may be said to be “in the Adapted Child ego state.”

It is very healthy to be naturally playful and to sometimes be strongly adapted to life or situational circumstances. Excessive indulgences in either or both can be a problem. If a person is too playful on the job he can get fired. If people are too adapted, such as being inappropriately defiant, withdrawn, unhappy, rebellious or resistant, they can choose behaviours that are appropriate.