Whatever! – Using Transactional Analysis to communicate better with my Teen

By Yashodhara Lal

May 22, 2023

Two of the TA concepts that I have found most useful to understand interpersonal relationships and communication are Transactions and Strokes. These were introduced to me in the TA 101 itself and I saw how easily they lent themselves to application.

A Transaction is defined as a unit of social intercourse (Berne, 1964, p. 10). Thus our exchanges with others are transactions, and Transactional Analysis is a way of studying these interactions.

I live with my husband, and three children. There are significant daily opportunities for me to learn about relationships by simply observing my various transactions with these others. In this blog, I write about how I used my awareness of TA to improve communication with my teenage daughter

How I began to use Transactional Analysis Proper at home
Earlier last year, after I quit my job and started to spend more time at home, I noticed my daughter had become withdrawn and expressionless, especially when it came to interactions with me. It was using TA proper that I was able to see my role in the shut-down of communication between us.

From the ideas of Complementary and Crossed transactions, I understood that my transactions with my daughter were more in the latter category.

For a complementary transaction, the response must go back from the receiving ego state to the sending ego state. Berne wrote of Complementary transactions that ‘the response is appropriate and expected and follows the natural order of healthy human relationships’, and ‘Communication will proceed as long as transactions are complementary.’ (Berne, 1964, p. 10)

Complementary Transaction (S=Stimulus, R=Response)

A Crossed transaction, on the other hand, is one where the ego state that responds is different from the one which received the stimulus. ‘Communication is broken off when a crossed transaction occurs.’ (Berne, 1964, p. 11)

Crossed Transaction

I understood that our communication breakdown was due to several crossed transactions for which I could take responsibility. For example:

My daughter (laughing): ‘Mom, the boys were having the funniest conversation last night in bed….’ ( Child-Child)
Me (sternly): ‘Yes, I’m sure it was very funny, but I heard you all giggling till late– you should have stopped them!’ (Parent-Child)

This conversation – like many similar ones – ended with my daughter giving an expressionless ‘Hmm.’ Followed by silence.

I could see that I was operating in default mode from my dominant ego state of Critical Parent, and these default responses were eroding my closeness with my daughter. In fact, she had begun to block communication with me, even when I was making an attempt to express my genuine interest in her wellbeing.

Me (interested and concerned): How was your day at school – are you adjusting well to the new system?
Daughter (dismissive, business-like): It was fine.

I understood there were ulterior messages at play here. Ulterior transactions are those which involve the activity of more than two ego states simultaneously (Berne, 1964, p. 13), and this exchange between my daughter and me was the Duplex type, involving four ego states (diagrammed in Figure 6). The ulterior message from her was ‘I’m mad at you for always being critical of me, and I won’t give you more detail.’

Duplex Transaction between me and my daughter

I felt sad to realize that while I had aimed to have a healthy and expressive relationship with my daughter, it was already becoming strained and distant – I could pick up on my daughter’s annoyance with me even though it was not directly expressed; I could also see that a naturally expressive child was in the process of becoming a moody and withdrawn one. I decided that since our overall relationship was being shaped by our daily transactions, I would need to change how we interacted. I began to deliberately plan slots of time where the two of us could be with each other, uninterrupted by other family members. My husband often took our sons to play squash, so I made it a point to take those opportunities to walk into my daughter’s room and sit down for more casual chats.

Our conversations were stilted and awkward in the beginning but eased over time. At one point, I decided to express having wished for more connection with my family in my own childhood ,and expressed my wish for our relationship to be better. I saw her listening with attentiveness and even though she didn’t say a word, I felt she understood.

After a few weeks of concerted effort on my part, my daughter began to open up and speak about her friendships and troubles at school. I realized that despite her natural sharpness and talent for many subjects and extra-curricular activities, she was suffering from doubt and uncertainty when it came to feeling accepted socially. I encouraged her to talk about it, putting in effort to refrain from either advice or judgement.

My Daughter: What’s wrong with her? She is supposed to be my friend, but she keeps putting me down.
Me: Hmmm. Sounds hard. (Recognizing her Child need to be empathized with and heard, responding from my patient Nurturing Parent)
My Daughter: Yeah! (Silence) I’m thinking, you know…if she’s really even a friend!
Me: That’s really got you wondering, huh?

And hence, our conversation continued – in a complementary vein!

Complementary Transaction between me and my daughter

A Conscious Use of Strokes
As I listened and observed more in the course of our interactions, I noted that like me, my daughter was already developing a dominant Critical Parent as well as Adapted Child – even though we seemed very different personalities on the surface, our internal worlds were similar; as she spoke more, her inner critical voice and feelings of helplessness revealed themselves to me; I realized that I would need to use strokes in a different way with her than I had been doing so far.
A Stroke is defined as the ‘fundamental unit of social action’ (Berne, 1964, p.15); it is a unit of recognition, either verbal or non-verbal. We had learned about the types of strokes in our training group as positive, negative, conditional and unconditional. As I took stock of the typical strokes that I was giving my daughter even as our communication improved, I came up with following summary table (Figure 8).

The types of strokes that I gave my daughter

I realized that most of my strokes for my daughter were positive, but conditional- I tended to comment on and praise specific actions and achievements; and even though I tried to recognize her for the things she had done, there were plenty of negative conditional strokes that I was giving her as well. Overall, I realized I needed to acknowledge her more for her being versus her doing, in order for her to develop an innate confidence and sense of being loved for herself.
I also saw that in moments of high irritation, I used negative unconditional strokes which could affect her deeply. And even though on a few occasions I was able to express my deep love affectionately, I wasn’t sure if these strokes were being fully accepted by her; she seemed to hear them but didn’t respond actively.

I happened to volunteer to make a presentation on Strokes for our training group, and within that came across the idea of Attributive Strokes (Oller-Valejo, 1994). Attributive strokes are strokes that ‘bridge conditional and unconditional strokes: They refer to aspects of our natural “doing” or “having” that express our “being” in life.’ (Oller-Valejo, 1994, p. 186). The hypothesis is that strokes are most powerful when we feel we have done something to stimulate them; and also if they are attributable to something that is natural and unique about our way of being.
At the end of my presentation, I made a request of the group: I said that if they were give me any strokes for my presentation, they do so with attributive strokes. I felt so delighted when I received these that I saved them for future reference,

‘Your presentation was crisp and clear, and your intelligence shone through in how you designed and delivered it.’
‘It was such a thorough presentation, and I especially loved your energy and confidence.’

Using my learning from this experience, I began to consciously alter my use of strokes with my daughter, using more attributive stroking for her ‘being’ from the many opportunities that were presented by her ‘doing’, such as –
‘That piece that you played on the piano sounded great! I love your energy and enthusiasm to pick up new things.’

‘That was a nice thing to do for your brother. You have such a caring nature, it’s wonderful.’

It has taken a lot of patience and effort, along with plenty of setbacks on the way, but now there is a visible shift in my relationship with my daughter; a deeper connect between us, and more expressiveness on her part. I also see her becoming more confident at school, and she is able to handle tricky situations involving best friends and break ups, and is fitting in well into a new schooling system. When I spoke to her about my learnings in TA, I was delighted (apart from surprised!) that she was interested in knowing more about basic TA concepts. I have even started to use some TA terms with her in conversation – our shared special language (which her younger brothers have no clue about) is an unconditional non-verbal positive stroke for her, strengthening not just the Adult-Adult but also Child-Child connect between us.

As a testimony to the shift in our equation, she recently told me that she feels like she can tell me anything – in fact, while she usually tends to ‘play it cool’ like the teenager she is, she made me a birthday card which included the line ‘you’re the best friend that I’ve ever had, and I don’t even care how cringy that sounds’.

That’s quite a stroke right there for me. I’ll go further than that: I have lived four decades, and I have never ever received a love letter more worthy of treasuring.

About the author:

Yashodhara Lal, a graduate of IIM B, is the bestselling author of several books, including “And How Do You Feel About That’ which she has co-authored with Aruna Gopakumar. After almost two decades of experience in companies such as Unilever and Dyson, she founded Allsomeness, dedicated to helping people live their full potential, and now works full time in the space of therapy and coaching.


    Please fill the form to receive these articles regularly and to receive our mailers

    One response to “Whatever! – Using Transactional Analysis to communicate better with my Teen”

    1. Tejashree Abhishek says:

      Beautifully written yashodhra. I could relate to your struggle to build relationship with your daughter so much. And I am glad you found a way to approach the situation and turn it around using TA

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *