Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Parent, Child & Contaminations

Understanding & Using Our Inner Parent, Child & Adult

Transactional Analysis (TA) offers us an easy to use model for understanding our personality.
This insight into the origins and functions of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours allows us to choose those that are most helpful, whilst disempowering those that are unhelpful.

Known as the P-A-C model, this metaphor, describes our personality as being divided into Parent, Adult and Child ego-states. It is drawn as a set of three stacked circles containing the capital letter of the 'personality style' it represents, see below

The Structural Model

of Ego-states

The Parent

When I am thinking, feeling or behaving as 'powerful' people did when I was a child, I can be described as accessing my Parent ego-state.
This part of my personality might be provided with content I've internalised from my parents, teachers, older siblings or even powerful 'personalities' such as super-heroes or religious figures.

Held within the Parent are rules, traditions, superstitions and morals.

The Adult

When I am thinking, feeling or behaving based on here and now information, that is free of prejudice or preconceptions, I can be described as accessing my Adult ego-state.

The Child

When I am replaying thoughts, feelings or behaving as I did as a child, I can be described as accessing my Child ego-state.
When 'in Child' I will only be able to draw on the resources that I had available to me, at the age I'm replaying.

The Child is often described as the original ego-state, out of which the others evolved.
Held within the Child are energy, spontaneity, rebelliousness and self-centredness.

Non of the ego-states are 'better' than the others. All contain content that I can choose to use in a way that will be helpful to me... or not.

So far we have looked at the structure of the ego-states and what they contain. Next we will look at how we use them and what function we give them.

A Walk in the Park with 'my selves'

Let's take a look at how I might experience my ego-states whilst taking a walk in the park.

The weather is fine, I'm feeling happy and I decide to go for a run in the park as exercise. I change into my running kit, fill my water bottle and set off. 
Here I've been using my Adult to access my here & now experience, my happiness is in response to the weather today and my decision to go for a run in the park I enjoy.

When I arrive at the park I see an advertisement for a Fair, to be held next weekend. I'm excited, feel energised and remember how much fun the 'Waltzers' are.
Here my Child responds to the advert for the Fair, replaying earlier thoughts and feelings.

Distracted by my thoughts of the Fair, I don't notice a Doberman coming towards me. It leaps towards me and I'm terrified by this monster!
My Child scare alerts me to a possible danger.

"Rover, get down!" shouts the dog's owner, then to me "He's just a big puppy really and wants to play".
I carry on running, relieved the dog was on a lead.
I mutter to myself, and shake my head, "Stupid man, he should have trained it better before walking a dog like that in the park".
Here my Parent ego-state shows it's irritation, and I don't even recall that's what my Grandmother used to say about excitable dogs, even shaking her head in the same way.

Some of the ways I use may ego-states may be useful to me, others may not.
By recognising the characteristics of the helpful and unhelpful parts I can support choose how I use the information they're offering me.

A Functional Model

of Ego-states

This diagram divides the Parent and Child ego-state in order to describe the observable behaviours, that suggest how people use and express their ego-states.

The Controlling Parent 

As a child my parents would sometimes tell me what to do, they might criticise or control through their words or actions.
When I behave in ways that re-enact this, I am in Controlling Parent.

This can be further divided into both positive and negative components:

CP+ve is when we are genuinely motivated by protecting or promoting wellbeing and offering structure through being directive, firm and inspiring. 

CP-ve is when our behaviour's intention is to put down or criticise the other by being bossy, fault finding or punitive.

The Nurturing Parent

At other times my parents were caring or nurturing towards me, wanting to take care of me.
When my behaviour replays this, I am in my Nurturing Parent.

As above, this can have positive and negative parts:

NP+ve is motivated to offer care and nurturing from a position of positive regard for the other. We display behaviours such as compassion, understanding and are cherishing towards the other.

NP-ve is when our 'nurturing' of the other discounts their own wants, needs or abilities. We are over-indulgent, inconsistent or smothering of the other.

The Adapted Child

As a child much of the time I was supervised by my parents or others, more grown-up than me. They would give me guidance, instructions, and rules. I discovered that when I complied or modified my behaviour in line with these I "got on better" with the grown ups.

AC+ve is when I cooperate with others, in the way I did as a child to get positive strokes. I display behaviours such as being sociable, sharing and being clear about my 'wish list' of wants.

AC-ve is when I'm compliant or resistive in the way I did as a child that resulted in my getting negative strokes. I behave in ways that are submissive, anxious or rebellious.

The Free Child

Sometimes as a child I behaved in ways that were independent of the grown-ups, neither adapting or rebelling against these rules or expectations. In Free Child I display behaviours that display my uncensored desires, passions, emotions.

FC+ve is when I'm behaving spontaneously, displaying my creativity, expressing my feelings, energetic and dynamic.

FC-ve is when I'm behaving in ways which display undeveloped ways or relating to others. At these times I'm egocentric, selfish and careless.

We have four ways in which to identify which ego-state is being activated, these are:


Here we notice the types of interaction ( or transactions) being made with others.
If I'm presenting myself as asking another to take care of me, it is likely I'm in Child inviting the other to step into their Parent to take care of me.
If I feel invited to joke and have fun it is likely they are in Child, whereas I may feel an urge to respond with a fact, if the other is in Adult.


By paying attention to our previous experiences we can gain useful insights. Imagine I'm in discussion with you about a piece of theory, when I notice that I'm wagging my finger just the way my father did when he was telling me how to do my homework.
This alerts me to the likelihood that I'm in my Parent, inviting you to be in Child.


In TA we mean noticing a response to a stimulus, as if it were a reenactment of how I responded in the past. I re-experience my thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations in the here and now, with little loss of impact, despite the passage of time.


When noticing behaviour we pay attention to what we can see and hear. Imagine you were getting into character to play a role on stage.
You'd pay attention to your lines or words,
your tone of voice,
your mannerisms and gestures,
your facial expression
and your posture.
By paying attention to several of these we can deduce the likely ego-state is active.

By identifying which ego-state we're in, we can decided if that is useful to us at that time or not. 
If not, we can identify a more useful one and choose to activate or energise it's characteristics.


Sometime we may find it difficult to identify which ego-state we're in, we may even be 'muddled' and think we're acting from here-and-now Adult when we're not. 
A useful thing to do at these times of confusion is to ask ourselves " that really the case".

Parent Contamination

When I'm experiencing a Parent Contamination, I'll confuse a Parent catchphrase, prejudice or motto for Adult reality, for example:

"I've been stood here for half an hour and there have been seven number 6's but no  number 8 buses !"

"People can't be trusted"

"Real men don't show feelings"

"It always rains in Manchester"

If I think statements like these are reality, I'm in a contamination.

A tip here is, if I refer to myself as "you" then I'm probably in a Parent Contamination, for example

"You have to make sure your blog is perfect before you can publish it"

Child Contamination

When I'm in a Child Contamination, I'll confuse my childhood beliefs with my adult thinking, for example:

"I can't spell"

"There's something wrong with me"

"All spiders are dangerous"

"I'm stupid"

"Breaking a mirror causes bad luck"

"If I get wet I'll catch a cold"

I use my contaminated Adult to support my Child to rationalise and support a firm, false, fixed belief.

Double Contamination

A Double Contamination occurs when I re-play an Adult 'catchphrase' , then agree to it with Child belief and confuse both of these as reality, for example

Parent: "Real men don't feel"
Child: "I feel sad"
resulting in: "I'm not a real man, there's something wrong with me"

Parent: "People can't be trusted"
Child: "I can't trust anyone"
resulting in: "I can't share this with anyone"

These Double Contaminations forms part our 'Frame of Reference', through which we view, interpret and interact with reality.

Managing Contaminations

One of the ways in which we can manage contamination of the Adult ego-state, which is one of the first stages in Transactional Analysis therapy, is to strengthen the Adult ego-state boundary.

A way in which we can do this is to ask ourselves, or others:

"Is that really how it is?", then...

               ... allow ourselves pause for thought. 

Those responses we give ourselves immediately, that are absolute, or that sound as if there is a wagging finger behind them, may be coming from a contamination.

I suggest allowing oneself to be open to the possibility that...
... things might not be that way.

Giving it a go...

If you'd like to try out 'analysing ego-states' you could try watching a TV drama.
Can you spot what ego-states the characters are in?
Do they change ego-states?
When are they displaying Contaminations?

Next Time:

The Egogram: A Tool for Change


I am grateful to Robert van Tol and his website for making the originals of diagrams used in this blog available.
His site is a fantastic resource and I'd encourage you to visit it.

Further Reading

Clarke, S. L. (2012) Clarke’s Dictionary of Transactional Analysis: A Compendium of Definitions, Diagrams, References, Awards, Biographies and Organizations. Edited by Susan Legender Clarke. United States: Peace Imprints

Stewart, I. and Joines, V. (1987) Transactional Analysis Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. 19870601st edn. United Kingdom: Lifespace Publishing

Van Tol, R. (2004) Transactional Analysis Student. Available at: (Accessed: 6 May 2015)

Woollams, S. and Brown, M. (1978) Transactional Analysis

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