[Two Pronged] My parents expected a more expensive Christmas gift

[Two Pronged] My parents expected a more expensive Christmas gift
What's 'parentified' and why is it bad?


 Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons. 

Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer, 

Money has been tight the entire 2019 so my Christmas gifts for my family are not as lavish as in previous years. My brother is a professor in a university. Last year I gave him yearly subscriptions to The Scientific American and The Atlantic; this year, I have him 2 paperbacks; I gave my parents a 5-day cruise to Bangkok, Singapore, and Vietnam in 2018; this year I got them a round trip ticket to Davao, where they could live with my aunt, my mom’s sister.  

My brother thanked me but my mother cried when she saw my present and ran upstairs (it was in an envelope, announcing my gift, just like it was last year). My brother and I were surprised at her reaction. We asked my father for an explanation, and he just shook his head.

Two days later he explained: because I am a year older, they expected a more expensive gift. A 7-day trip to San Francisco, maybe, where my mother has a brother where they could stay with should they decide to stay longer than 7 days in a hotel.  The other option, he said, was an upgrade from a-3 star hotel to “kahit 4 star man lang, hindi naming ine-expect ang five-star hotel. Alam naming tumaas ang rate ng dollar ngayon.”

I was shocked, especially when they noticed I bought two new work outfits for myself this year. Why could I not have bought just 1 so the money for the other suit could be used for their present? I tried to defend myself, explaining how I didn’t get a bonus this year, whereas last year I got a 2-month bonus, but my father was not convinced.

What else can I do? I promised them a better present next year, but they did not seem satisfied by that.

Please help.


Dear Paula, 

Thank you for your email.

From your account it seems that your family, whatever its other merits (none of which you mention), treats you as its own private ATM machine, at least at holiday time. Quite understandably, this is something which you do not appreciate and would like to change. However, your interim response has been to promise better presents next year which is designed not to improve, but to worsen the situation.

Family relationships usually develop a relatively stable equilibrium (homeostasis) between the parties. Each has a role evolved over time. These roles accommodate all types of behavior – love, abuse, alcoholism, religiosity, depression, hard work, idleness etc. – and are no respecter of yardsticks such as morality. 

The initial relationship is generally between the parents and further relationships develop as children join the family. By the time the children are adults, all the relationships are firmly in place and unlikely to change unless subjected to new forces, external or internal e.g. the patriarch becomes an invalid, a son joins the armed forces instead taking over the family business, a daughter emigrates instead of staying to look after aging parents.

Your complaint seems to be that your family expects you to come up with suitable presents regardless of your financial situation. Whether this means that you want to stop the merry-go-round entirely or merely manage their expectations more effectively is not clear.

Well, it is a basic tenet of family therapy that you cannot change anyone else, only yourself. Applying that here, you need to consider your options. As is so often the case, there is an array of these, stretching from acceptance of the status quo at one extreme to embracing your total independence (perhaps even leaving home and making your own way in life) at the other.

Your reaction so far, promising them a better present next year, suggests that you are not ready/willing to abandon the status quo, but this does not mean that analysis of your other options would not be worthwhile.

All the best,

JAF Baer

Dear  Paula,

Boyoboyoboy, this is another instance I am so glad our relationship is one of columnist-questioner, rather than therapist-client because I do not have to wait ’till the timing is right to tell you things you may not accept if told too soon, I can tell them to you now and hope that you pick up insights from Mr Baer and me which would help you manage your family life better than you did last Christmas.

First, it is clear that you have been parentified as a child. In other words, your role has been reversed so that you are now the parent, providing for your parents’ material gifts at Christmas and your mother acting like a teenage ingenue, running upstairs and crying because she didn’t get what she expected. I am sure Christmas is not the only time you have been parentified (birthdays? Easter Bunny day?) and I am also sure that it is not only in gift giving that you are forced to be the parent in your family. It is likely that parents like yours, who have gotten a free ride gift-giving wise, will have found other ways to ensure that you take up their responsibilities.

Dearest Paula, if it were only a matter of presents and your having to save up for better ones next year despite your financial situation, I would let it go, but parentification has so many bad effects.  

Among said effects are the following:

  1. It takes away your childhood. Childhood is the only time you can allow others to care for you all the time and enjoy not having to be responsible and face the world’s many troubles. Having a happy childhood sets the stage for the rest of a person’s life and identity. Being confused as a child about the role one is supposed to have can cause problems in the future.
  2. It can sow anger, resentment and other negative emotions: As Grace Norberg, a licensed therapist certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy says: Parentified children like you, realizing that other parents do not expect their children to do as you do, may feel you were treated unfairly (which you were) by your parents who not only should have known better, but who should have had enough of a conscience to do what was expected.
  3. It may hinder future relationships – and this is what scares me the most, Paula. Your relationship with your parent is the first and most fundamental relationship you experience, whether you like it or not. You realize that your parents rely on you (when it should be the other way around) and thus generalize and engage only in relationships where you are unable to really trust anyone and can only depend on yourself. And what sort of a life is that, Paula?

We have no space to share ways you can stop being parentified, unless someone writes us about this (hint, hint).  

So maybe till next time? All the very best and good luck!

MG Holmes


Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email twopronged@rappler.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately, the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.

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