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Remi’s ‘Presents’ Game: A Gift of Awareness

Traci Howland, LMFT  (2022)


Remi, an educated, married, stay-at-home father of two small children, initially sought out therapy to work on improving communication with his parents. Remi was an only child in a family that he described as “very materialistic;” his parents would provide him with lavish gifts in lieu of their time. His parents controlled their communication, giving him a weekly time that he “needed to call them;” obediently, he had had weekly communication with them through video chat for a couple of years. Though compliant with his parent’s requests and guidelines, he found it to be exhausting and said it felt “fake.” Remi expressed annoyance at the lack of consideration he felt from his parents and shared that it has always been “about what they want him to do;” he never felt like he could be himself around his parents. Following one disastrous weekend visit with his parents, he thought it best to cut all communication with them with the exception of necessary brief email interactions. I assisted Remi through this difficult process and helped him examine his underlying reasons for the cut-off. Over time, the focus in treatment shifted to his becoming more emotionally available and physically present for his wife and children, to counteract replicating the parental role modeled in his family of origin.

My general intention for using RfG enactments with Remi was to get this stay-at-home dad out of his comfort zone slightly and lean in to play. This had been a topic that was brought up for several sessions as the client wanted to grow and change, recognizing the need to have more flexibility in his thoughts and behaviors. Being more mindful and present in his life was one of his clinical goals and contrasted with habits grooved by his previous corporate job (as a marketing director for a billion-dollar company, where he was expected to be analytical and hypervigilant with projects and deadlines). I selected the game “Presents” specifically to help Remi experience the feelings of blocking and receiving bids for attention.

The basic variation of the “Presents” game is played by the “Giver” first extending his/her hands out as though offering a gift to the “Receiver.” The Receiver of the gift is told to think of something that they would like to receive and then imagines seeing it on the outstretched hands of the Giver. The Receiver then mimes taking and indicating the use of this imaginary present, along with expressing appreciation to the Giver.  Then, the players repeat the game with Giver and Receiver roles reversed.

Remi agreed to play “Presents,” albeit somewhat nervous as to what was expected of him. The game was on and Remi shared feeling slightly awkward at the beginning but laughed and stated that he wanted to continue. When I smiled and handed him an imaginary gift he acted surprised and happy to receive the thing he wanted. However, there was a dramatic shift of affect and energy when it was his turn to present the imaginary gift to me. As the Receiver I acted excited and waited patiently for Remi to hand the imaginary gift over. Remi froze; his eyes darted from left to right and down, no longer comfortable making eye contact. I immediately saw his profound discomfort. After ending the enactment which he evidently found quite stressful I invited him to articulate what he was experiencing. Remi nervously confirmed that he was: confused; scared; didn’t know how to behave; wanted to escape; and felt embarrassed. After I offered to stop the camera and allow him a few minutes to himself before signing off the video session Remi, speaking hesitantly, declined to continue, stating that “he just had to get out of here.” I agreed, we ended, and I followed up by email.

Through some minimal correspondence I was informed that he felt safe, though not yet ready to process the recent episode. Later in the week, Remi canceled his next appointment that would reoccur on Fridays. The following week Remi emailed me, stating that he would like to take the Summer off and be more present with his family and that he would reach back out to continue therapy in the Fall. Three weeks later, Remi requested an appointment and stated that he would like to process the confusing and painful reactions he had experienced with the “Presents” game.

That next session, Remi shared some further details about his family of origin. A pivotal event had occurred when, after going away to college, he came home for Christmas break. His parents gave him money, instructing him to go to the mall and purchase them Christmas presents. He reports that he painstakingly went from store to store but could not find any gift that would represent his love or that was meaningful. He reported that he went home that night empty-handed and went to sleep. When he woke up on Christmas morning, his parents gave him many presents, and he did not have any for them. Later that night, his parents approached him and told him that he would need to leave, and he was no longer a member of their family for not getting them anything for Christmas. In the morning, he was given a second chance to buy his materialistic parents gifts to show his love and appreciation for them. He went to the mall and bought some impersonal and “senseless” gifts to meet their expectations; to his surprise, their prior disappointment appeared exchanged for their approval of him.  Remi said that his parents acted as if the incident from the night before never happened; it was never spoken of again.  Remi shared that this pivotal experience had provided him great insight into his relationship with his parents and why he never felt as though he was good enough or met their expectations.

Remi’s single experience with the “Presents” game had brought home impactfully his difficulties with being in the moment and playing with his children because he was often hyper-focused on controlling the outcome. By allowing himself to enter the virtual play space with me he had indeed ‘leaned into’ the moment. Remi shared that though this enactment brought up some difficult feelings for him, he was thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow with a better understanding of why being in the moment was often a challenge. Remi processed many epiphanies over the following weeks and reported now being able to engage more fully with his children in both mindful and playful ways.