By Ian Pittaway – integrative psychotherapist

‘Why does my life always end up this way?’

‘Why can’t I keep my friends?’

‘Why can’t I leave relationships I know are bad for me?’

A key task of psychotherapy is to help the client notice patterns in their life, to wonder together about the roots of these patterns, and find ways to uproot the patterns and replace them with more healthy ways of thinking, feeling, acting and being. A powerful tool in this task is the Parent-Adult-Child model of transactional analysis (TA), and this article briefly describes a way of using this model with the client to uncover the roots of the client’s patterns of being. If the roots can be uncovered, and the resulting repetitive patterns understood, then the client is consciously equipped to make positive choices that previously were impossible since the patterns were invisible.


In TA, these repeating patterns are called games. A game is something we do to ourself, deliberately but unconsciously, to reinforce an early decision we have made about what the world is like and who we are in the world. The decision is not a conclusion reached through rational thought, but the result of step-by-step adaptations to developmental experiences.

The point of a game is to reinforce this early decision, to reinforce our identity, and to do that we involve other people in a mini-drama, without our knowledge or theirs. It is the unconscious nature of the game that gives it its power. But a game is easily spotted because of the payoff, the end result of the game, which puts the person cognitively, emotionally, and sometimes physically back at the point of their childhood trauma.

This is easier to understand with an example. Little K is an only child whose repeated experience after school is of coming home to mom with something she has made saying, ‘Mom, today at school we …’ She’s regularly interrupted by mom at this point, over-tired, working three jobs to make ends meet, her relationship with K’s dad in tatters. With great regularity, her first words to her daughter are ‘K, do you NEVER shut up?! Go and talk to your dad, for Christ’s sake!’ K hears these words and understands that all she wants is attention, but all she gets is rejection. She goes to dad, as she’s been told, but she knows the inevitable response. ‘Dad,’ she says almost under her breath, ‘would you like to see …’ Now she’s interrupted by dad, who doesn’t look up from his reading: ‘K, love, I’m too busy now. Go and talk to your mom.’ Over time, K gives up, and she makes a decision – not conscious, not logical, not a conclusion based on propositions, but a profound unconscious decision: the world is unfriendly; no one listens to me; I don’t matter.

This then becomes the material for a game. Like a blueprint, K takes this adaptation into adulthood. Her developmental deficit means she is desperate for attention, to be liked, but is afraid to ask for it for fear of rejection. Her biggest fear is of being alone. The payoff of the game will be to make sure she is isolated, alone and hurt, reinforcing her view of the world and her position in the world. It may work like this. In any discussion with friends, acquaintances, partner, she is on the alert for any perceived slight, any opportunity to feel that someone isn’t listening. She collects all those little hurts like trading stamps until she has enough to ‘cash them in’ for a burst of anger, the anger little K felt but was afraid to express. When she has enough stamps, she pounces on the friend who interrupts her mid-sentence, telling her how rude she is, and how dare she! K storms off for the payoff, returning to the emotional decision of childhood: the world is unfriendly; no one listens to me; I don’t matter.

Using the PAC chart to uncover games

By the time K is your client, it is likely she will only know that her relationships are difficult, that she is lonely, that her friends are OK but that she feels unloved. She may well say her parents were both very busy but she had a perfectly ordinary and unproblematic childhood.

The idea of the PAC chart is to bring out relational patterns and early decisions, and thus detect the games in order to undo them.

PAC model: 3 circles labelled 'parent', 'adult' and 'child', with the top and bottom circle divided in two by vertical line..First, on A3 paper, draw 3 circles and label them as on the illustration right, with the top and bottom circle divided in two.

Explain to the client that the 5 ego states are filled in according to the client’s autobiographical messages, as follows. Parent, Adult and Child ego states are capitalised to distinguish them from physical parents, adults and children.

Nurturing Parent (NP): The part of you which have absorbed your caretakers’ care. This can be positive if you were encouraged and your needs were met, or negative if that nurturing came with a price or has significant deficits. The NP represents your experience of care or lack of care that you still carry.

Critical Parent (CP): The part of you which has absorbed your caretakers’ criticism. This is negative if you were undermined or unduly criticised, but can be positive if your parents showed you boundaries for your own physical, social or emotional safety. The CP represents the experience of criticism that you still carry.

Adapted Child (AC): The part of you which responded emotionally, cognitively and practically in relation to the NP and CP. It is in the AC that early decisions are made, and thus it is in the AC that unresolved emotions are carried. It is important to stress that all 5 ego states within PAC are present tense. The AC was formed historically, in childhood, but the decisions made in the AC, and the critical voice of the CP or the nurturing voice of the NP play an active part in our present-tense day to day lives. For example, when faced with an authority figure the tendency is to recreate the type of relationship or transactions that typified either CP/AC interactions or NP/AC interactions.

Free Child (FC): The part of you which acts free from authority and social expectations, having fun.

Adult: Your ability to stand back, observe, take the bigger view, not pulled in by the games of the NP, CP and AC.

I usually find it most helpful to start in the NP or CP. As each new bullet point is added to these ego states, elicit the response of the AC and fill that in sequentially, paying particular attention to the interplay between the NP/CP and the AC. In K’s case, the NP may have the nurturing deficit.

  • Dad: ‘I’m too busy.’

and the CP might have

  • Mom: ‘I won’t allow you to speak.’

with the CP response or early decision

  • No one has time for me, no one is interested, no one listens.

This, and other transactions between the Parent and Child, is used as a springboard to locate the client’s Parental messages, absorbed in the Child: discounts (what you can’t be), injunctions (what you must be), and games (repeated dramas to reinforce discounts, injunctions and early decisions).

The role of the Parent and Child ego states is to recreate the past. Only the Adult lives in the present, free of games. It is therefore the Adult on the chart that is filled in last with the client, often summarising what we have learned in the rest of the chart, stating new decisions that are now open to the client since games have been located. Filling in the PAC chart with the client is itself a way of strengthening the here-and-now Adult who can see games and will not be unconsciously pulled in by them.

The effect of the PAC chart

My aim in using the chart is to decide, with the client, on a basic statement that sums up their early decision about self. Since that decision is made in the unsophisticated Child, it can be summed up in a simple sentence. Once the chart the complete, it may be a statement such as:

  • I am too faulty to be lovable.
  • My needs are not important, so I gain validity through rescuing others.
  • I am bad and deserve punishment.

This serves as the basis for further work, understanding how the games reinforce the decisions, and understanding in the therapeutic relationship what the client missed developmentally and relationally, and therefore what s/he needs from me the therapist, or what s/he needs to locate in other parts of life to find the sustenance s/he lacked as a child.

Clearly there is far more to ego states, discounts, injunctions, and games than stated here, and it is difficult in this short article to convey the power of the PAC chart. It has regularly, for me and my clients, provided a ground-breaking turning point in therapy leading to clarity and resolution.

© Ian Pittaway 2020

Author Bio

Ian Pittaway is an integrative psychotherapist with a practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. His developmental-relational integration includes transactional analysis, person-centred therapy, object relations, attachment theory and self psychology.

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