On the Parent, Adult, & Child Within: The Voices that Guide Us

pacPsychotherapist & founder of Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne, is famous for creating P-A-C (Parent-Adult-Child), a theory about personality based on the idea that each person contains three psychological positions or “voices” that guide our interactions & choices.

I have found that this creative framework allows us an opportunity to better understand ourselves and the way we interact with others. Below, I hope to provide a basic overview of these three positions or “voices”:

the Parent: The “How-To” Recording

“Much Parent data appears in current living in the “how-to” category; how to hit a nail, how to make a bed, how to eat soup, how to blow your nose, how to thank the hosetess, how to shake hands, how to pretend no one’s at home, how to fold the bath towels, or how to dress the Christmas tree…” (Harris, I’m OK-You’re OK, p.23).

We can think of the Parent voice as the set of rules – the do’s & don’ts – naturally taught by our early caregivers. Dependent on our caregivers, these rules become ingrained as truth – what is right & wrong. In addition, the Parent involves not only the rules of right and wrong but also the manner of directing these rules. While the Parent voice can be nurturing and protecting, it may also be critical and controlling. When we recognize ourselves becoming stubborn & hypercritical (“My way or the highway!) OR overly protective (“The constant Hero”) of others in our lives, this is our inner Parent “coming out to play” in a potentially unhealthy way.

dad bondingthe Child: The “I’m NOT Ok” Recording

“Everyone has an inner child.” (Harris, I’m OK – You’re OK)

“On the basis of these feelings the little person early concludes, “I’m not OK.” Even the child of kind, loving, well-meaning parents. It is the situation of the childhood and not the intention of the parents which produces the problem.” (Harris, I’m OK – You’re OK, p.28).

Like the Parent recording, the Child recording is instilled early on in our lives. While the Child contains the potential for creativity & playfulness, it also consists of the “I’m NOT Ok” message. In reaction to being small & dependent on “big people” to survive, each little person’s insecurity arises here in the Child. Understandably, it contains much of the fear, guilt, and pain emotions we experience. It is normal to have a Child reactions, especially in shocking situations; however, when the Child continues to dominate into adulthood it can look like constant self-doubting, struggles in stating opinions, or consistently choosing the “easy way out” – escaping or numbing discomfort in the face of challenges. While comfort and support from loving caregivers can soothe and provide the necessary “okayness” for a time, building self-esteem & confidence is necessary towards positive growth and maturity in adolescence and adulthood. This leads us to the next position, the Adult…

the Adult: A Voice of Clarity

“Thus we see the Adult as the place where the action is, where hope resides, and where change is possible.” – (Harris, I’m OK – You’re OK, p. 67)

The Adult voice is the only one of the three that is not a recording. Instead, it is ours to create as autonomous, free individuals. Further, we must be intentional in forming it. The Adult does not neglect or ignore the Parent & Child voices but rather is aware of how the Parent or “taught concept” and the Child or “felt concept” impacts interactions and choices. The Adult position respects these initial thoughts and feelings yet is also open to the here and now – to being present & open to new information. The beauty of the Adult is in its empowering effect. Where the Parent & Child can leave us stuck – one in a place of dominant inflexibility (P) and the other in a place of personal insecurity (C) – the Adult moves forward with honesty and curiosity.

How P-A-C Appears:

An example of P-A-C may involve a scenario in which one’s boss giving an honest critique of lateness. The employee can respond in one of three ways:

  • the Parent may respond with anger & defensiveness, expressing “You’re one to talk about me showing up late! I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you come into work several minutes late recently!”
  • the Child may respond with meekness & anxiety, stating “I’m so so sorry! I can’t believe I’ve been late…you probably want to fire me, huh?”
  • the Adult however responds with respect & honesty, responding with “Thank you for your honesty and I agree  – being on time is an area where I would like to grow. I’m wondering if I could can ask a few questions…”

What we can see here is an Adult who surely feels the same embarrassment & guilt of the Child & Parent yet responds from a position of remaining okay with oneself & open to change. This is only one example. You may notice your inner Parent or inner Child appearing in your life in more subtle ways – in interactions with friends, colleagues, family, or even strangers. The process of developing a strong Adult is not necessarily simple or easy. It is certainly a process and one that involves self-kindness, honesty, and genuine openness to recognizing personal patterns of dealing with strong emotions.

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Thanks for reading. Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.

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