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What Are Ego States?

What Are Ego States?

One of the key concepts from transactional analysis is the model of ego states. This can be used in work with clients in analysing problem relationships, and here we look at how these are created during childhood.

An adult has three ego states: at any point in time they will be “in” either Child, Adult or Parent (note the capital letters: this represents the difference between the state and reality, for example a parent interacting with a child may be in Child while the child is in Parent (or any combination)).


The Child ego state is one in which you respond and act as you did when you were a child. This does not necessarily mean that this is “childish”.  This state is subdivided into Adapted Child and Free Child.


  • An adult jumping over the waves at the edge of the shore is in Free Child
  • A teenager attending an interview for their first job, minding their ps and qs, dressing neatly and leaving piercings at home, is in Adapted Child


The Adult ego state is one in which you respond and act appropriately given the situation you are in, using the resources that you have as an adult.


  • A man who finds himself in a disagreement at work, who uses logic and discussion to resolve it, rather than resorting to underhand tactics etc is in Adult
  • A woman who wants to get more attention from her partner and simply asks for it, explaining the need, is in Adult


The Parent ego state is one in which you respond and act as your parents (or other authority figures) did when you were a child. It does not necessarily mean being “parental”. This is subdivided into Nurturing and Controlling parent.


  • A nurse who is comforting a bereaved relative is in Nurturing Parent
  • A boss who is castigating an errant worker is in Controlling Parent

It is important to note that all of these states can be appropriate or inappropriate at any given time. It is healthy for an adult to be in Adult most of the time, but it is unhealthy for them to never be in the others. All have their place.

Problems occur when children learn that one state is safer or more effective than another, and they learn this inherently through their own experience and their observation of others. Children will also take on all the states, although it is healthy for them to be in Child most of the time.

All parents will have witnessed those times when their child is in Adult (called the Little Professor), or Parent (either Controlling or Nurturing). It can be quite amusing to watch your child in this way, because of course, they are “being you”!

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