Nor Do You Have To Play Games

Games People Play

parentsEric Berne [1]

“They f**k you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.”[2]

In the 1960s Eric Berne developed his theories on Transactional Analysis (TA). In simple terms, he said that people crave structure and their ‘structure hunger’ leads to the development of rituals and manners. It also creates a tendency to view relationships (transactions in TA) from the perspective of the earliest relationships that we encounter: parent, child, adult. Berne suggested that whenever people interact with one another they play one of these 3 roles.

The scripts for each role are learned primarily in childhood by observing how our parents interact with each other and, more particularly, with us. As we know from earlier in the course, our experiences in our early years have a strong influence on the connections that form in our connectome and so on our instinctive thoughts and behaviours. However, this does not mean that we simply mimic the behaviours of our parents and ourselves in these early years; we may observe a behaviour and recoil from it (though it is not uncommon to catch yourself in later years echoing the words of your parents to your own children!). Berne’s work has been developed by others and nowadays the roles, or ‘Ego States’ in the language of TA, tend to be described in the following way:


This is a role learned from the way our parents treated us when we were younger.

  • On the positive side when playing this role, we act in a nurturing and structuring way, providing supportive guidance. We are likely to praise and focus on what is going well rather than difficulties. Words such as ‘well done, good, you can do it’ are likely to liberally sprinkled throughout your conversations.
  • The negative behaviours of the parent role are spoiling, over-bearing direction and criticism. The negative parent can be pedantic and patronising. Scowls replace smiles and the words used change to ‘bad, should, ought, must, don’t’.


This role is dominated by emotion and a lack of responsibility.

  • The positive aspects are being cooperative and spontaneous, fun-loving and uninhibited. This is you at your most playful, free from analysis, enjoying the moment in-the-moment. This is your ‘Natural’ child.
  • The negative aspects of the Child Ego State are generally associated with the ‘Adapted’ child. To live with other people, we need to adapt our behaviour; we cannot do whatever we want. The negative Child response to such constraints is immaturity, typified by inappropriate compliance or resistance. It is the Adapted Child that may:
    • try to please everyone
    • ignore future commitments, missing deadlines
    • crave reassurance and praise from others
    • become anxious about what others think
    • sulk
    • overreact to setbacks or imposed rules
    • become involved in petty points-scoring to try to improve their place in the pecking order

The Adapted Child state concedes control over one’s happiness to external factors. It is this state of dependence, like a child, that drives the adapted behaviours. In a relationship, it places one at a lower level when interacting with someone who is playing one of the other two roles. The behaviours of the Child are essentially lashing out or bending to whatever the other person wants.


In this role the person is thoughtful, controlled and reasonable, comfortable with who they are. They are grounded in the present and can draw easily on the positive qualities of both parent and child roles but without succumbing to unhealthy scripts based on past relationships.

“We are in one or another of these states at any given time. We can change from one person to another in in a moment. Everything about us changes— our physiology, voice tone, respiration, perspiration, vocabulary, and gestures. These states are not roles, but realities. The state is produced by the playback of recorded events in the past involving real people, real times, real places, real decisions, and real feelings.”[3]

Which role?In your life you may play all 3 roles but one role will tend to dominate whenever you interact with a particular person. This happens because there are elements in the situation or relationship that resonate with your past experiences and you fall into a role and follow a script. It is the identification of common elements between patterns in your current situation and patterns from your earlier years that activate the script’s neural connections. For example, it would be understandable if one falls into a Child role when interacting with someone who is older than you or in a position of authority. Understandable, but not necessarily conducive to a good and mutually beneficial relationship. The most harmonious relationship is Adult to Adult but this is not always easy to achieve since the other person may insist on playing one of the other roles. Often the role playing will be subtle: a co-worker who adopts the Parent role because they have been with the organisation for longer or the Child roles assumed by a colleague who becomes uncommunicative if feeling unappreciated or a friend who resents your friendship with others. But you do not have to let their choice of role dictate your choice.

The roles are not always obvious and Berne catalogues tens of ‘games’ which people play. On the surface, a person’s behaviour may be plausible but there are hidden motivations. For example:

  • malicious compliance – doing exactly what someone asked, even though it causes problems, of which you are aware. There’s a sub-reddit devoted to this – but don’t get sucked down the rabbit-hole that is Reddit! 
  • ‘Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch’ –  a person derails a project or increases the work for another person by pedantically insisting that a minor, non-critical issue is attended to. Thus an administration assistant may refuse to pay a salesman’s expenses because of a small error in adding up a column of figures, an error that the assistant could fix themselves but chooses not to do so.

The negative Child behaviours here stem from the assistant’s perceived lack of power and autonomy. This is how a child can feel when constrained by parental rules and the childish response can be to be ‘difficult’. Rationally, little is gained by the assistant but there is an emotional ‘reward’, albeit one that is self-destructive in the longer-term.

What are the triggers that activate your Child and can you think of situations in which you have induced another person to follow a Child script, perhaps by adopting a Parent role?

There are times when following a Child script can gain you the results you desire. As the saying goes, ‘it is the squeaking wheel that gets the oil’ and kicking up a fuss or throwing a tantrum may get the attention of a haughty or complacent supplier; wailing louder and longer, as embarrassed parents know, can sometimes achieve results. Conversely, sometimes people will be happy to accept guidance and a Parent role will be appropriate. However, in each case, these should be conscious decisions that you take rather than automatic reactions. In other words, you should aim to be an Adult who can play rather than be the Child or Parent.

To reiterate: we have a need for structure in our relationships with others and the Parent : Child : Adult roles are easily accessible because they were learned, and reinforced, at a critical time in the development of neural connections. The pattern recognition engine of the brain identifies common elements in current relationships and relationships we had with our parents. We may then project the Parent : Child : Adult roles onto our current relationship.

I am scratching the surface of a complex and jargon-laden area of psychoanalysis but, even at a relatively superficial level, I believe that the 3 roles may provide you with some insight into why you behave differently with different people. Identify your triggers, situations or people, and how the scripts tend to play out. Seek feedback from others. Ask yourself what the positive and negative outcomes of these behaviours might be.

“Awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future.”[4]

[1] The title of Eric Berne’s book introducing his theories of transactional analysis.

[2] Opening lines of ‘This Be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin. Full version here:

[3] Amy Harris, Thomas Harris, Staying Ok

[4] Eric Berne, Games People Play