Are you a Parent, Child or Adult at Work?

Are you a Parent, Child or Adult at Work?

Feel like you’re parenting unruly children instead of chairing a business meeting?

Thought someone’s behaviour at work was like them throwing their toys out of the pram?

Have you been guilty of being critical or judgement of a colleague?

Ever noticed yourself reacting critically or defiantly in a work situation?

You are not alone.

I’ve had a client once say my 6-year old behaves better than ‘so and so’ in that meeting.

Another executive client realized his own childish behaviour of sitting quietly and obediently in a meeting for fear of upsetting someone.

They are not alone.

When we are interacting with others we are often unconscious of our behaviour, sometimes reacting (appropriately or inappropriately) versus responding.

This dynamic can be just as true at work as it can at home. At home with your children, parents or even partner.

This theory is part of Transactional Analysis (TA).

Transactional Analysis

TA is theory of psychology developed by Eric Berne in the 1950’s. It’s based on the idea that one’s behaviour and social relationships reflect an interaction between aspects of each person’s personalities that were established early in life.

His famous book is Games People Play from 1964.

Each interaction between me and something else (person, group, object, idea etc) is a back and forth. Each “interaction” in called a transaction hence the term Transactional Analysis – analysing what’s behind each human encounter.

Ego States

Just as Sigmund Freud had 3 ego states in his theory of psychology (Id, Super Ego, Ego), Eric Berne defines 3 ego states as well, building on the work of Freud.

Ego states are ‘ways of being.’ Who we are as we are showing up in our relationships and interactions. It’s the ‘come from’ place of your thoughts, feelings or actions – the energy behind it.

TA defines the 3 ego states as Parent, Adult and Child.

None of these are wrong, except when done to hurt ourselves or others. Most of us have some of all three, they all have pros and some have cons.

Once you understand ego states it becomes quite easy to see them in others, and yourself.


This is when we think, feel or behaviour like the adults in our childhood. We recorded what the adults in our childhood said, did or felt and think this is normal as a child.

This ego state of Parent can be CRITICAL or NUTURING.

The Critical Parent has rules, defined right and wrong, limiting beliefs about what is possible and not possible. It’s about pursuing ideals and obeying rules and regulations. And not just laws or rules of society, also rules of the family eg. “our family goes to university.”

The cons are controlling, critical, patronising, and finger-pointing.

The Nurturing Parent is about showing thoughtfulness and affection towards others. Pros are keeps you safe, calming, nurturing and supportive. Great when you are a parent caring for a child.

When brought into other relationships it can be a problem.

It can be suffocating, assumptive of what others want, or rescuing where you do too much for others, doing things without being asked, thereby no asking what others might want. Nurturing

Parent can create trust or dependency depending how used. And cause resentment in the Nurturing Parent “because of everything they do with no thanks.”

When acting from a Parent ego state we are in our past, borrowed from the adults, parents, or primary caregivers of our past when we were children.


This is the felt and lived experience of when you were a child, the thinking, feeling, and behaving like when you were small. This is a precious, fragile and vulnerable part of ourselves. This ego state of Child can be FREE CHILD or ADAPTIVE CHILD.

The Adaptive Child can have 1 of 2 responses.

The Adapted who is compliant knows there are rules and follows them eg “I’m so sorry for being late” in a pleading voice, or before anyone has even commented or cares. It’s often compliance with rules – both written and unwritten.

The rebellious response from Adaptive Child knows there are rules and rebels against them – going against them. The cons are rebellious, tantrums, difficult, and insecure.

The Free Child ego state has no rules, is sourced from a time younger than the adaptive child, is unaware of rules. Usually shows up as fun, creative, playful, curious and spontaneous.

When acting from a Child ego state we are in our past, we made recordings of who we were and how the world works when we were young and apply that to new situations in our present life.

Our Child can be hurt and upset in the here and now based on a situation unrelated to our childhood however, triggering of something in that childhood.

The photo in this article is me in Free Child – more creative, spontaneous and fun. A state that nourishes me, so I consciously step into it.


This ego state is based on the here and now, the present reality, grounded, not from an aspect of our past.

We think, feel and respond to the here and now, not conditioning or pre-programmed memories from our childhood.

An adult thinks, judges and makes decisions objectively factoring in the data and situation present in this moment using facts and feelings as relevant.

The pros are reasonable, logical, rational, non-threatening and non-threatened.

The “Ideal”

The ideal is to take these 3 separate ego states and integrate them within ourselves.

It’s to become conscious of the history or past that might control you or impact how you react in the present.

We want autonomy; to have an integrated adult ego state being in the here and now, having a foot in adult and invoking the energy of Parent or Child as appropriate.

Top 5 Leadership Tips

• Know some of the unwritten rules of your childhood that might trigger you. I was often nurturing parent and would be resentful when my partner or friends didn’t reciprocate my (unsolicited) advice or kindness.

• Ask questions of others that can help you understand their “go to” ego states (without thinking you’re a psychologist). What brings out the worst in you? (criticism, being told no or you’re wrong). What brings out the best in you? What helps you be creative

• Notice when someone reacts disproportionately to the current situation and recognize they might be triggered, it’s often them reacting from their past. They aren’t just reacting to this one moment, they are reacting to every cumulative time they’ve felt this way hence the “overreaction.”

• Be patient when someone is triggered. They are in the amygdala part of the brain, the primitive emotional part of fight, flight or freeze and have lost their ability for rational thought in that moment. Be silent, soften your face and voice. Ask what they need in this moment.

• Own your behaviour if you are triggered. I’ve often said to a friend, “I think I am being triggered as I’m noticing anger and shutting down (compliant child) as you are telling me what I did was wrong. Can you rephrase it so I can hear you and understand please?”

What are your Parent and Child default reactions?

What do you do when team members are in Parent or Adult?

What would it take for you to be and stay in Adult? (to call forth the adult in others)

I work through these questions and more with many of my clients, so they can motivate and support their teams, and so they get the best Adult contributors they can.

Are you curious to learn more to be more motivating and productive? Contact me at for a complimentary introductory call. I guarantee you will learn something helpful about your leadership in that initial call.

Resource Influence: Accredited Certificate from The Power Institute 2022.