Sunday, April 3, 2011

Parent contract and counterscript action (Part 2)

In Transactional Analysis terms a contract can be made from any of the three ego states. They are worded in three different ways. A client is contracting to loose weight.

Ego state contracts

If the novice client comes to therapy and says, “I should loose some weight” the therapist knows that is a Parent contract. A contract that is motivated by the Parent ego state. The bottom line of human nature is that the Child ego state will always win out in the long run. What the Child ego state wants is what the person will end up doing in the long run.

In Parent the client may say they should loose weight and from their Adult ego state confirm that it makes sense to loose weight, which it does. This will all amount to nothing unless the Child agrees in some way or form. If the Child ego state says it likes food and does not like exercise then in the long run it is going to eat nice tasting food and not do much exercise.


In most cases the Child ego state wants will predominate fairly quickly. The person may start a new diet and within a week or two or three it is pretty much forgotten. The person may take out a new six month gym membership and after a month they don’t get there very often. In each case the power of the Child in the personality dominates over the influence of the Parent and Adult ego states. Even when the Adult thinks it is perfectly rational and sensible to loose weight, which it usually is, that does not matter as far as the Child aspect of the personality is concerned.

There is an exception to this which is called counterscript action. Some people can exert considerable influence over self from the Parent ego state. They may be highly self controlled people or have a severe self punitive attitude. They are capable of depriving their own Child needs for an extended period of time.

If this is the case then the Parent contract will work for longer periods of time than the customary few weeks or months. The person may loose 20 kilos for a year or two. However still the Child will win out in the end and the weight goes back on as the Parent ego state looses dominance in the personality over time. In these cases one gets what is called yo-yo weight loss. They can loose significant weight for an extended period of time but eventually is put back on. People who do this are capable of severely clamping down on their own Child needs which indicates some significant psychological maladjustment. It can indicate significant self loathing or anger.

Child ego state

One can now see how important it is for the therapist to identify when a client is presenting a Parent contract. If missed the client can do work on a piece of behaviour over a number of weeks and it is never going to work in the end. Indeed if the therapist gets a sense of the work not going anywhere this may be a sign it is a Parent contract and thus one goes looking for it.

Some are easy to identify. In any contract to loose weight, exercise more, stop drinking, reduce drug taking, working harder it is highly likely there is a Parent contract in there somewhere. They are easy to identify when a client makes a contract that uses Parent ego state language. “I should loose weight”, “I must go to work on Saturday mornings”, “My wife says I need to say what I am feeling” are all relatively easy to identify as Parent ego state contracts.

These are contracts which obviously the Child ego state will not like. Other Parent contracts come from a significant rather than one the client wants to make. For example, “My wife says she will leave me if I don’t get counselling” is very likely to be a Parent contract. With any coerced client there at least partly a Parent contract to the therapy.

Nun rabbit ears
The Child ego state will always win out in the end

Novice clients make it easier to identify Parent contracts because of the language they use. That is Parent ego state language as stated above. With the experienced client it is not so easy. As the client learns about Parent contracts and the words used by the Parent ego state they can then change the language. They learn the culture of the therapy approach and fit in with that and that includes using the language.

What the therapist is wanting a client to say in a contract is something like, “I want to stand up to my mother” or “I want to take some time off work”. “Want”, is a good word to have in a contract as it reflects Child ego state investment in the contract. As clients become more experienced they learn the language and may unconsciously change the language to fit the culture or to try and convince self they want it when really they don’t.

The Child ego state wants what it wants - whether good or bad

The experienced client may say, “I want to complete my thesis” when underneath the real contract is, “You should finish your thesis you lazy bum”. A Parent ego state contract is presented as a Child ego state contract because the experienced client knows the language and culture of the therapy. They are not setting out to deceive the therapist they are just wanting to do the right thing.

Any contract can have a Parent contract hidden in it. A mother may come to therapy and say she wants to learn boundary setting with her son. That seems like a very reasonable request. Behind it however there is the belief, “I am a bad mother who is hurting my children and should know better”. The therapist needs to ascertain if there is any Parent ego state involvement in the contract being presented.



  1. So what will happen if a client turns up on a parent contract ? Will their child jerk the therapist around?

  2. I'm wondering if a good contract is from the adult or whether it is one that takes account of all the ego-states (or whether this is what 'adult' means).

  3. Yes that is precisely what will happen Kahless. The client will sabotage the therapy in some way.


  4. All the textbooks say Evan that a good contract is made with the involvement of all three ego states. The bottom line though is that the Child has some interest in the contract being completed.

  5. I found this post really interesting especially since I am a novice client. One thing I have noticed since therapy is that I don't seem to use the word "should" any more. I only realised that the other day.

  6. My doctor has referred me to see a counsellor. I didn't feel that I had much choice in the matter as I felt he would not prescribe the drugs I need otherwise. I do not want to go, therefore I guess I haven't even got as far as a parent contract! All my other 6 times i have felt i wanted to see a counsellor; not this time. I don't intend to play ball as I see it as a waste of my time as the nhs in England use 6week cbt therapy. I intend to be straight upfront and say that. If I can be bothered that is. Talking has become a waste of time . But the fact that I am typing this suggests to me that maybe the drugs are starting to work. About time after 6 weeks.

  7. Hi Linda,

    Only two hours time difference between us now!

    When I see someone for the first time I always ask about their history in counselling. The novice client or the person who has had very little previous counselling is quite a different 'fish' to the experienced client.

    The experienced client is capable of being much more defended in the therapy setting.

    Hope it is going well for you


  8. Hello Anon from the UK,

    From what you have said there if you go to counselling it is definately going to be a Parent contract. I would suggest you say that to the counsellor when you first meet. That would avoid the possibility of potentially weeks of not getting very far.

    Graffiti from OZ

  9. I love TA and I love contracts. Without contracts, there no TA.

  10. Yes I agree with you Joseph.
    First and foremost TA is a contractual therapy


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