When I am teaching this subject live I usually begin the theory element by drawing a big circle on the whiteboard and dividing it into three equal sections. I explain that all of the theories that those of us who work with people need to know most about could be fitted in each of the sections if we called them Humanistic, Behaviour/Cognitive and Psychodynamic. I explain that, putting it simply, the first section is about working with feelings, the second concerns thinking clearly and the third involves making sense of the past.  I usually then begin with the Humanistic section and work my way around the circle. But on this occasion I want to skip on to the Behaviour/Cognitive because I think that it follows on more naturally from the previous chapter.

I offered the scenario of Melanie returning home and what the ideal therapeutic response might be to her aggressive and offensive presentation. However, I can’t be sure that were I in the position of the foster carer that I would be so clever and therapeutic. We are all human, have strong feelings and reactions, and so cannot be relied on to do the right thing all the time. I studied Transactional Analysis (TA) long before I trained in psychotherapy and I believe that this theory has been more useful to me working with others than any other theory I have learnt. TA is almost the only theory I consciously use from the Behaviour/Cognitive  school of therapy.

Sigmund Freud (1923) offered the first and ingenious  structural way of understanding our psyches or personalities. He claimed that the first part of our psyche that we are born with is our Id, Latin for instinct. When we are helpless, preverbal babies, we are simply all about feeling, eating, having physical needs met. As we develop language and change from saying ‘me’ to ‘I’,  we begin to separate and individuate from our parents and so we grow the next element of our psyche, our Ego, which is Latin for ‘I am’. We can now think and talk, express opinions. Then, around about the age of seven, when the Catholic Church believes we reach the Age of Reason and can tell the difference between right and wrong, Freud claimed we acquire a Super Ego, Latin for Ego over the Ego or in charge of the Ego. This part of our personality is our conscience, informed by what we have been told by people in authority. However, we may not always be told the truth: some children in the southern states of the United States of America are probably still being told, as fact, that black people are not their equals as human beings, as children in Nazi Germany were indoctrinated that Jews and others Non Aryan peoples were subhuman and uncessessary. Our Ego, the thinking part of us, has to mediate between what we may be feeling and what we have been told, what we know. This describes the function of a healthy personality. But what if the person we are trying to communicate with is not trying to do the same and is dominated by their irrational feelings or by their prejudicial mis-information? And we don’t have a friendly psychiatrist on hand?

Eric Berne (1964) came to the rescue with Transactional Analysis (TA), a more user-friendly version of Freud’s structure of the personality. Transactional Analysis is a complicated name for a very simple way of knowing where you are coming from and, more especially, where the other person is coming from.  In his practice as a psychotherapist in California he encountered very few clients who spoke Latin. So he drew three circles, the bottom one, instead of Id, he named Child, and proposed that when we are in the Child part of our personality we are in our feelings.

The next part of Freud’s structure, the Ego, Berne call the Adult. When we are in our Adult we are thinking and in the here and now. Children as young as 3  can have a functioning adult that obviously matures with age. When I meet for the first time a young child I have been asked to work with as a psychotherapist I usually ask: “Are you still OK to talk with me?” Mostly I get a nod in response. I have never been told no. I believe my respectful question equalises our relationship and this may be a new experience for the child which of course gives me a significant advantage. If parents, carers, teachers, social workers, everyone who works with children, could do one thing differently it would be to address, if possible, the Adult part of the child, however young. If they can talk, they can think. If they can think, they have an Adult.

So, in everyday life, when I ask: “What time is it, please?” and you answer: “nearly 9 am”,  this is a transaction, a completed communication between two people. Were we to analyze the transaction,  we could probably agree that it was initiated from the Adult, the thinking part of my personality and was answered from the Adult, the thinking part of your personality.

But if I was to ask: “What time is it, please” and you responded: “Time you bought your own bloody watch!” , then your response might not be coming from your Adult.

Berne chose to call the Superego the Parent part of us, when we are being nurturing and controlling, or when in fact we are being our parents or people we have internalised as parent or authority figures. So the response: “Time you bought your own bloody watch!” might have come from a cross, telling-off part of your internalised Parent. You could equally have responded from the nurturing, kind Parent with: “I’ve got a watch at home I never use. Would you like to use it?” and then, from your Adult: “Its four o clock, by the way.”

If your toddler runs in from the garden crying and upset because he fell over and cut his hand, he is in his Child and it would not make sense to respond from your Adult as in: “How much in pain are you, on a scale of 1 to 10?”. The natural and normal response, from your nurturing Parent might be: “Oh, you poor thing, come here for a cuddle!” and when he is back to normal ask his Adult, from your Adult: “How are you now? Ready to play again?”.

There are three current advertisements on Irish TV that illustrates TA well. One for a car, when the father collects his teenage daughter from a game she has played in and clearly lost. She looks furious getting into the car, in her angry Child. But I like how the father does not try to Parent her, cheer her up or express disappointment. He stays in his Adult, stays himself and she smiles in appreciation of this. And also because she likes being Parented, the seat being electrically warmed for her.

The other advertisement depicts a woman doctor consulting with a mother who has recently had a baby . The doctor asks the mother: “And how is mummy?” rather than “How are you?” The doctor is in her Parent talking down to the mother who may struggle not to feel like a helpless, dependent child.

The third advertisement involves a mother driving her daughter to a toy shop to buy herself a present. She is choosing a chemistry set when two passing girls her own age roll their eyes in derision. She replaces the chemistry set and buys a girly toy instead. Back in the car her mother asks: “Is that what you wanted?” The girl answers “No”, goes back into the shop and gets the chemistry set instead. Her mother, who has up to now been admirably Adult-Adult, can’t resist a proud and loving Parent-Child “That’s my girl”.

Effective psychotherapists will mostly not only work Right Brain to Right Brain but also Adult to Adult. Without this there could be no Working Alliance,  essential between client and therapist. It began with the client being real, asking for help with a specific problem and the therapist offering to help. Foster carers and social carers may often work with very unwilling clients who may need to be encouraged into a Working Alliance. I believe this can only be done by addressing respectfully the Adult part of the client, however young, however old. I cringe when I hear professionals talk down to young children in high silly voices. They may as well have bad breath and soft, limp handshakes and have no hope of being taken seriously by the child.

And equally annoying are carers who also put on a high Parenty voice to very annoyingly and insultingly ask a dependent elderly person: “And how are we this morning? Have we been good and eaten up all our brek brek?”

Melanie came back from school, mostly in her Child, angry, confused and humiliated. But she probably does not have a therapeutic Working Alliance with her foster carer where she could get her Child some comfort and understanding. So she moves up into her Parent where she has experienced and internalised lots of juicy, rejecting insults and put-downs. Confronted with Melanie’s emotional onslaught, it could take some effort and self-control from any of us to stay in our Adult, when our negative controlling Parent might want to angrily shout back at her, or our frightened Child might want to run away from this stress. But if we could stay in our Adult and respond, however awkwardly: “I see you are very upset and angry. Can I please ask you why?”,  then we might see how elegant and effective this response can be. And it doesn’t have to be perfect, only good enough. Children and young people will always forgive us making mistakes while we try new approaches to reach them. What they may not forgive us for is not trying.

Finally, there are many excellent explanations of TA on youTube that illustrate the theory with the necessary circles, something beyond my technical ability at the moment. I also recommend I’m Ok – You’re OK  by Thomas A Harris (1995) published by Arrow Books in New York and  TA Today A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, 1987, published by Lifespace Publishing in Nottingham and Chapel Hill.



Berne, Eric (1966) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy New York: Grove Press

Freud, Sigmund (1923) The Ego and the Id Freud Library, Vol 11 Penguin: London