Are you a child or an adult? Exploring transactional analysis

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes react to situations or people in a way that feels childlike, even when you're an adult? Or perhaps you've observed others reacting similarly?


The concept of transactional analysis (TA) offers valuable insights into understanding these dynamics.

Developed by Canadian-born psychiatrist Eric Berne in the mid-20th century, TA delves into the different ego states within us, mainly focusing on the child and adult states. In this article, we will explore the intriguing world of transactional analysis and how recognising and managing these states can improve our relationships and personal growth.

Understanding transactional analysis

Transactional analysis is a psychological framework that explores human behaviour and communication. Berne proposed that everyone has three ego states: parent, adult, and child. These states influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in various situations.

Parent ego state

This state is influenced by the messages and rules we received from our caregivers during childhood. It comprises our internalised "shoulds" and "should'ts" and we might find ourselves acting like our parents or authority figures when we're in this state.

Child ego state

The child ego state is the repository of our emotions, feelings, and impulses. It can manifest as the free child (spontaneous and uninhibited) or the adapted child (compliant and conforming to external expectations).

Adult ego state

The adult ego state represents our rational, objective, and analytical thinking. It is not influenced by past conditioning or emotional responses and is focused on the present moment.

Identifying your ego states

Recognising which ego state you are in during a conversation or interaction can be enlightening. By doing so, you can better understand your reactions and responses.

Here are some signs that can help you identify your ego state:

1. Parent ego state

  • Critical or judgmental language: When you're in the parent ego state, you might find yourself using words and phrases like "should," "ought to," "must," or "you're wrong." For example, "You should have done it this way."
  • Authoritative tone: You may adopt a tone of authority or superiority, similar to how a parent would instruct a child. Your body language might be rigid, and you might exhibit a stern facial expression.
  • Imposing rules and regulations: In this state, you might be inclined to set rules, boundaries, and expectations for others. You might enforce these rules even when they aren't necessary or appropriate for the situation.
  • Parental nurturing: While the parent ego state is often associated with criticism, it can also involve nurturing and protective behaviour. For example, offering comfort and support like a caring parent.

2. Child ego state

  • Emotional responses: When in the child's ego state, you may experience strong emotional reactions, such as anger, fear, excitement, or joy. These emotions can be intense and may seem childlike in their intensity.
  • Spontaneity: Your behaviour may become more spontaneous and impulsive. You might act on your feelings without much consideration for consequences.
  • Dependency: In this state, you might seek guidance, validation, or support from others, resembling a child looking to their caregiver for reassurance.
  • Playful or rebellious: The child ego state can take on two forms: the free child (playful, carefree, creative) and the adapted child (compliant or rebellious). You may exhibit traits of either, depending on the situation.

3. Adult ego state

  • Logical and objective language: The adult ego state is characterised by rational and objective communication. You'll use words and phrases like "I think," "I believe," and "It appears that." Your language is free from emotional judgment.
  • Analytical thinking: When operating from the adult state, you'll engage in analytical thinking, weighing pros and cons, considering facts, and making decisions based on a thoughtful evaluation of information.
  • Emotional neutrality: You maintain emotional neutrality, making decisions and engaging in discussions without being overly influenced by emotions. You can acknowledge your emotions without letting them control your actions.
  • Problem-solving: The adult ego state excels in problem-solving and seeking solutions rather than dwelling on emotional reactions.

Understanding these signs for each ego state can help you become more attuned to your own reactions and those of others. Keep in mind that it's normal to shift between ego states depending on the situation and your emotional state. The key is developing the awareness to consciously choose the most appropriate ego state for any interaction, fostering better communication and healthier relationships.

Why do I find myself entering the child ego state?

Finding yourself frequently entering the child ego state in various situations is a common experience for many people. It's important to remember that the child's ego state is a natural part of our psyche and serves various functions in our lives. Here are some reasons why you might find yourself entering the child ego state:

Emotional responses

The child's ego state is closely tied to our emotional responses. When faced with emotionally charged situations, it's natural for your emotions to come to the forefront, causing you to react from the child state. For example, if you receive unexpected praise or criticism, your emotional response may lead you into the child ego state.

Past conditioning

Our childhood experiences and upbringing significantly influence our ego states. Suppose you grew up in an environment where your emotions were either encouraged or suppressed. In that case, it can impact how you express yourself as an adult. For instance, if you were taught to be expressive and open with your feelings, you may find entering the child ego state easier when emotions run high.

Stress and overwhelm

When facing stress or overwhelming situations, it's common for individuals to revert to their child ego state. This can manifest as a desire to seek comfort or escape from the stress, much like a child seeking solace from a caregiver.

Personal triggers

Certain situations or triggers can activate your child ego state due to past associations. For example, if you had a traumatic experience as a child, encountering a similar situation as an adult may cause you to react from a more vulnerable or fearful child state.

Spontaneity and creativity

The child's ego state is also associated with spontaneity, creativity, and playfulness. In some instances, entering this state can be a positive and enjoyable experience, allowing you to explore new ideas or simply have fun.

Social and cultural factors

Social and cultural factors can influence how individuals express themselves. In some cultures, showing emotions and vulnerability may be more acceptable, leading to a more prominent child ego state in certain situations.

Lack of emotional regulation skills

If you haven't developed strong emotional regulation skills, you may find it challenging to stay in your adult ego state during emotionally charged moments. In such cases, the child's ego state can become the default mode for coping with emotions.

Recognising that having a child ego state is not inherently problematic is important. It becomes an issue when it hinders effective communication or problem-solving in adult situations. Developing emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and healthy coping mechanisms can help you navigate between ego states more effectively and choose the most appropriate one for a given situation. Therapy and self-help techniques can be valuable tools for understanding and managing your ego states in a way that promotes personal growth and healthier relationships.

What to do if I notice myself going into the child ego state?

Noticing that you're entering the child ego state is a crucial first step in improving your self-awareness and emotional intelligence. When you recognise this shift, you can proactively manage your reactions and choose a more appropriate ego state for the situation.

Strategies when entering the child ego state

Here are some strategies to consider when you notice yourself entering the child ego state:

  • Pause and breathe: Take a moment to pause and take a few deep breaths. This simple action can help you regain your composure and create a mental space to assess your feelings and reactions.
  • Self-reflect: Ask yourself why you're entering the child ego state. What triggered this response? Understanding the root cause of your emotional reaction can provide valuable insights into your behaviour.
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques can help you stay present in the moment and prevent automatic shifts into the child ego state. Focus on your breath, bodily sensations, or the environment to ground yourself.
  • Use "I" statements: Shift from making accusatory or emotional statements to using "I" statements that express your feelings and needs. For example, say, "I feel frustrated when..." instead of "You always make me angry when..."
  • Seek emotional support: If you're feeling overwhelmed by emotions, it's okay to seek support from a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Sharing your feelings can help you process them and gain perspective.
  • Practice emotional regulation: Learn techniques for regulating your emotions, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. These practices can help you stay in control when emotions run high.
  • Reframe negative thoughts: Challenge and reframe negative or irrational thoughts that might fuel your child's ego state. Replace them with more balanced and rational thinking.
  • Set boundaries: If someone else's behaviour triggers your child ego state, consider setting healthy boundaries to protect your emotional well-being. Communicate your boundaries calmly and assertively.
  • Develop coping strategies: Build a toolbox of healthy coping strategies, such as journaling, physical exercise, creative outlets, or engaging in hobbies that help you manage stress and emotions.
  • Practice self-compassion: Be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge that everyone has moments when they enter the child ego state. Self-compassion can help you recover and learn from these experiences without self-criticism.
  • Seek professional help: If you frequently struggle to manage your ego states and it significantly impacts your life and relationships, consider seeking guidance from a therapist or counsellor. They can provide tailored strategies and support.

Remember that it's normal to experience shifts between ego states, and the goal is not to eliminate the child ego state entirely but to manage it effectively. Developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness takes time and practice, so be patient with yourself as you work on these skills. Over time, you'll become more adept at choosing the most appropriate ego state for various situations, leading to improved communication and healthier relationships.

Can counselling help me if I notice that I keep reverting to a child ego state?

Yes, counselling or therapy can be highly beneficial if you find yourself frequently reverting to the child's ego state, and it is causing difficulties in your life or relationships.

How can counselling help?

A trained therapist can provide valuable support and guidance in addressing this issue. Here's how counselling can help:

  • Self-awareness: A skilled therapist can help you better understand the underlying causes and triggers that lead you to enter the child ego state. Through self-exploration and introspection, you can uncover past experiences and patterns of behaviour that contribute to this dynamic.
  • Emotional regulation: Therapy can provide you with effective tools and strategies to regulate your emotions. Learning how to manage intense emotions and cope with stress in healthier ways can reduce the frequency and intensity of shifts in the child's ego state.
  • Identifying patterns: Your therapist can help you recognise recurring patterns of behaviour associated with the child ego state. This awareness is essential for breaking free from automatic responses and making more conscious choices in your interactions.
  • Developing adult ego state: Therapy can assist you in strengthening your adult ego state, enabling you to respond to situations in a more balanced, rational, and mature manner. This includes improving your problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence.
  • Exploring childhood experiences: In many cases, the child's ego state is influenced by past childhood experiences. A therapist can create a safe space for you to explore and process these experiences, which can be therapeutic and lead to healing and growth.
  • Setting healthy boundaries: If difficulties in setting boundaries are contributing to your child's ego state reactions, therapy can help you develop assertiveness skills and establish healthy boundaries in your relationships.
  • Improved communication: Counseling can teach effective communication skills, helping you express your thoughts and feelings clearly and assertively while reducing the likelihood of falling into a childlike or reactive mode during conversations.
  • Personal growth: Therapy is a powerful tool for personal growth and self-improvement. It can empower you to make positive changes in your life, build resilience, and enhance your overall well-being.
  • Tailored approach: A therapist will tailor their approach to your needs and goals. They may use various therapeutic modalities to address your unique challenges, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT), or psychodynamic therapy.
  • Support and encouragement: Therapy provides a supportive and non-judgmental environment where you can openly discuss your concerns and challenges. Having a therapist as a sounding board can be reassuring and motivating as you work towards personal growth and change.

If you're struggling with frequent shifts into the child ego state, affecting your well-being and relationships, consider contacting a qualified therapist or counsellor. They can support you in finding ways to navigate these challenges, develop emotional resilience, and facilitate your journey toward a more balanced and mature response to life's situations.

In conclusion, recognising and addressing the tendency to revert to the child's ego state is a pivotal step toward personal growth and improved interpersonal relationships. It's important to remember that experiencing the child ego state is a natural aspect of human psychology, shaped by our past experiences and emotional responses.

Seeking counselling or therapy can be valuable for individuals who frequently enter the child ego state, especially when these patterns lead to life challenges. Through therapy, individuals can gain self-awareness, develop emotional regulation skills, and explore the root causes of their behaviour. This process empowers them to make conscious choices, strengthen their adult ego state, and respond to situations more balanced and maturely.

Understanding and managing your ego states is a path to greater self-compassion, improved communication, and enhanced overall well-being. It's a journey towards becoming the best version of yourself, capable of navigating life's challenges with wisdom and emotional intelligence. Remember that this journey is unique to each individual. With dedication and the right support, positive change is within reach.

To find out more about Hope Therapy & Counselling Services and the support they can offer, take a look at our profile or feel free to email us

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Hope Therapy & Counselling Services
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Hope Therapy & Counselling Services are dedicated to providing comprehensive and compassionate mental health and wellbeing support to individuals, couples, and families. Our team of experienced and qualified counsellors & therapists are committed to helping clients navigate life's challenges...

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