Relational dynamics: “Parent, Adult, Child” Transactional Analysis model.

Part of being emotionally intelligent beings, is our ability to recognise our behaviours and their effect on ourself and others.

Back in the nineteen fifties, psychologist Eric Berne, developed the idea that people can switch between different states of mind—sometimes in the same conversation and certainly in different parts of their lives, for example at work and at home.  Through observations of clients in his clinical practice, he found that these states of mind aggregated into three types which he called Parent, Adult and Child. This model was later called ‘Transactional Analysis’.

Each state of mind has it’s own qualities:


The Nurturing Parent  who is caring and concerned. They seek to keep the Child contented, offering a safe haven and unconditional love to calm the Child’s troubles.

The Controlling (or Critical) Parent, on the other hand, tries to make the Child do as the parent wants them to do, perhaps transferring values or beliefs or helping the Child to understand and live in society. They may also have negative intent, using the Child as an outlet for their own frustrations or worse.


The Adult in us is the ‘grown up’ rational person who talks reasonably and assertively, neither trying to control nor reacting aggressively towards others. The Adult is comfortable with themself and is, for many of us, our ‘ideal self’.


There are three types of Child we can play.

The Natural Child is largely un-self-aware and is characterised by the non-speech noises they make (yahoo, whee, etc.). They like playing and are open and vulnerable.

The cutely-named Little Professor is the curious and exploring Child who is always trying out new stuff (often much to their Controlling Parent’s annoyance). Together with the Natural Child they make up the Free Child.

The Adaptive Child reacts to the world around them, either changing themselves to fit (people-pleaser) in or rebelling against the forces they feel.

During any interaction, we can find ourselves going between all three modes in relation to the interaction we might be having with the other person. If we were in adult-mode all the time, life could also become fairly boring. There are times when we choose to operate as the gleeful child, or the nurturing parent. The difference is that as emotionally intelligent leaders, we choose to be in this mode, and we self-monitor how often we are in each mode.

Within the workplace the different modes can result in some interesting dynamics.

If for example the leader is speaking with someone who during certain situations, goes into child mode, this can be quite difficult to handle. An example would be a leader addressing an issue with someone who chooses to take it personally and throws a ‘tantrum’. Continuing the line of discussion as much as possible (if it is a one-off), or addressing the behaviour are two lines of action. eg: “Hey I’m getting the sense that you might be taking this personally. I’m sorry if that is the case, that is not my intent, I want us to work together to solve this problem”. In this way the leader is stating their intent and inviting the other person to level-up their behaviour so you are both able to operate in an Adult-Adult manner.


Furthermore, we also need to be mindful of what triggers us to move into different modes, and the effect it can have on others. Maybe there is someone who triggers you to go into parent or child mode when it may be an unhelpful state to go into. Becoming aware of these times, and preparing yourself to make a conscious choice about which mode you will operate in beforehand can be a helpful head-start.

As you move forward into this coming week, begin to notice which modes you are operating from and with whom. Start to ‘play’ with different ways of ‘Being’ around those you wish to develop an adult-adult transaction with.

Have fun with it!

Mary-Anne 🙂

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