Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Early decisions and a child's thinking

In Transactional Analysis the A1 or Little Professor ego state is of considerable importance as it is a core component to the formation of our personality and script beliefs. In CBT terms this is how we get our thinking errors. It is the A1 that makes the early life script decisions that determine how we live the rest of our lives. 

C2 second order ego states

Unfortunately these decisions are usually made in the first 6 years of life and as will become apparent that means they are made with little or no A2 or fully formed thinking ability. They are made by the A1 in what are known as the stages of sensori motor egocentrism and pre-operational egocentrism.

This is some what disconcerting if not frightening because as will be demonstrated that thinking is quite illogical and distorted meaning the young child can make quite illogical and distorted decisions that are not reality based at all.

However this does explain how a child can make the suicide decision early in life which some people consider a bizarre thing to do. 

There are in fact seven suicide decisions a child can make:

If you don’t change I will kill myself
If things get too bad I will kill myself
I will show you even if it kills me
I will get you to kill me
I will kill myself by accident
I will almost die (over and over) to get you to love me
I will kill myself to hurt you

 In my book - Working with suicidal individuals - I state the following:

In the histories of suicidal individuals one finds parents can say many things which imply the suicidal message. For instance parents can say to the child:
“He’s our little accident”
“If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have had to marry your mother”
“We only stayed together for the kids”
“When you were born you tore your mother apart”
“You’re always hanging around me Jenny, why don’t you go and play on the freeway, Ha, ha, ha.”

Of course these only imply a possible suicide decision and as always it is up to the illogical thinking of the young child to conclude what it thinks about its own life. However if these kinds of things are said repetitively then it makes it more likely a child will made the suicide decision but is by no means a certainty.

Water boy

What follows is an explanation of A1 thinking in order to demonstrate how a child can make what is a seemingly bizarre decision about how it should live or not. (Some of this is adapted from:  Helman & Austin TAJ 1977.)

Piaget noted this as a major cognitive limitation in a child’s thinking as it develops.

Egocentrism is the inability to differentiate one’s cognitive perspective from that of others. The child mistakenly believes that its thoughts and beliefs are also held by others around it.

Cognitive development proceeds from an egocentric perspective to a more objective perspective.  Objective thinking remains in the domain of the Adult (A2) ego state. In this type of thinking the person understands and acknowledges perspectives other than her own and they can be taken into account in any decision making process.

A mother who is arguing with her husband and then finds her daughter not in bed yet may hit the child angrily. A child who is only capable of A1 (Little Professor ego state) thinking cannot take into account other objective causal facts for the anger. The child may think. “There must be something wrong with me to make her so angry that she hits me.”


An older person with A2 thinking is able to understand there may be other causes of mother’s anger, such as just having had an argument with her husband. Thus it is less likely to make false conclusions about itself and mother.

Sensori motor egocentrism  (Birth to 2 years)
A1 thinking is beginning and the child cannot differentiate between her own physical and cognitive being, and that of others. The child does not comprehend there is a separate physical boundary between mother and itself and of course all its rudimentary thoughts are perceived as belonging to mother and self as they are perceived as one entity.

Pre-operational egocentrism  (2 to 7 years)
A1 thinking continues to predominate but the child is now aware there is a physical boundary between itself and mother. However cognitively she 
1. Does not understand that others have cognitive perspectives besides her, or
2. Does understand this but is incapable of taking them into consideration at the time of her decision making.

Two girls (Jenny and Jody) are running along, Jody trips and cuts her face badly. Jenny who a few hours earlier had been angry at Jody thinks either:
1. Her anger caused the accident. “People will get hurt if I am angry at them.” Jenny is incapable of seeing Jody as being separate from her.

2. Jenny is capable of seeing herself as separate from Jody thus knowing she did not physically cause the accident. However she did feel angry at Jody and still has the belief that the anger caused the accident.

Digit & beggar

Also in this stage the child has the view that everyone thinks like she does and the whole world shares her feelings and desires. This sense of oneness with the world leads her to assume that she is magically omnipotent - “The world is created for me and I can control it magically”.

Finally in the stage of pre-operational egocentrism we have pre-causal reasoning which to many mature adults appears disconcertingly illogical

The child makes causal connections between events that just happen to occur together when there is no causal relationship.
The child sees a red object floating and says that it floats because it is red.
“When I was angry, mummy looked sad, I can control (am responsible for) mummy’s feelings”.

Things happen because they are supposed to. There is always a reason for things occurring as they do
“Bad dreams happen to punish me because I am bad.”

There are two parts to this. First the child believes grownups are omnipotent, so the child feels defined by what they say. A child spills milk and mother says, “You always do these bad things to me”. Child then believes, “I am bad so things would be better if I was not here”.

Second, the child identifies with these omnipotent beings and believes she is omnipotent as well. This can result in grandiose thinking. Watching and angry father the child may think, “You could kill (obliterate) me. I can kill (obliterate) you.”

Child believes world and nature are alive and have consciousness like it does.
“A stone is alive because it moves”.
“It gets dark at night so I can go to sleep.”

Kids & gituar

Concrete operational egocentrism  (7 to 11 years)
Child becomes able to coordinate other people’s perspectives using both A1 & A2 processing. As she interacts with more people she learns there are others who have different perspectives and she becomes more able to coordinate these differing perspectives. This also results in a giving up on beliefs like father christmas and the tooth fairy due to peer input and increasing A2 abilities.



  1. My background was a degree in Developmental Psychology - so Piaget is imprinted into my thinking. So, this article draws together my education, TA Psychotherapy training and my practice.
    (I am a great fan of Tony White's emphasis use of the 'functional' ego state model).

  2. Hi Anthony, Thanks for your comments. Yes Piaget was a prominent figure indeed Tony