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.


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

Embracing the Elephant in the Room [ My Heart for Psychotherapy ]

You simply cannot ignore an elephant in a room, especially not in a small room.  Well, you can for a time. Maybe you take special precautions to sit in the corner of the room, furthest from its large flopping ears and gray trunk. Perhaps you cover your ears when it lets out a shrill trumpet sound, close your eyes, and even hide behind your nearest friend as its large stocky legs draw nearer.  However, eventually elephants will make themselves known.  They may tear up an entire room doing so, but regardless, you’ll be forced to acknowledge them.

Most of us like real elephants but hate the metaphorical ones. The elephants in our hearts, minds, and lives that disturb us most often enter in uninvited. Psychologically we become experts at denial, pushing these problems and issues to the outskirts of our minds. “Out of sight, out of mind” becomes our philosophy. However, who are we kidding? Certainly not the elephant and probably not ourselves. The truth remains that the concern is still very much present, firmly standing its ground.

I passionately believe that one of the most important features of therapy is to allow a safe space for these elephants to be ‘unearthed’ and better understood. In other words, being vulnerable to the realities in our lives that we tend to dismiss-perhaps because they feel too large or too threatening-is a critical part of the process of personal awareness, growth, and healing.

Allowing clients a safe space to face these emotional elephants at their own pace lies at the heart of my passion for counseling. And why?

Because I know the personal impact it has made in my life.

I am so thankful for my first-ever counselor who challenged me to forge past my meticulously crafted and comfortable ‘topics to discuss’ list each week.  I’m so grateful for my therapist’s willingness to sit with me in the discomfort and tension [ and oftentimes uncomfortable silence ] which existed in the shrinking space between my elephant and me.  Finally, I am forever thankful for that time when I was allowed to move at my own slow pace towards the large, messy animal on the otherside of the room.  And by the time I found myself face-to-face with it, there was a certain inner peace and strength I gained from embracing the tension, crossing the divide, and vocalizing its reality in my life.

“Tension is the great integrity.” –Richard Buckmeister Fuller

I love this quote by R.B. Fuller who was an American architect, author, and inventor. As an architect, surely he understood the importance of literal tension in the building and structures he created.  For instance, even those of us with a minimal understanding of architecture recognize that that a bridge will collapse unless tension exists between the two base structures on either end. I similarly view the importance of recognizing and pressing-in to the emotional tension we may experience.

Pressing-in toward the tension requires vulnerability [ if you read my blog, you’ve likely noticed that I strongly believe in this word ] and humility. It can be difficult and even painful-perhaps comparable to taking off a bandaid, which has covered a deep scar for the first time. However, I feel that it is essential in wholly embracing who we are and where we are at.


Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.