Genograms are a visual diagram of the psychosocial issues in your family tree. Though the trained eye of a therapist is helpful in interpreting a genogram, you can make one yourself and learn a lot about your family dynamics. What is a genogram, how do you make one, and why are they helpful?
A genogram looks like a family tree and is based on your own lineage. It is used to diagram familial patterns like substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, gender roles, marital patterns or family roles, making them easier to see. There is something about putting this information on paper and representing it in symbol that makes it easier for the brain to pick up intergenerational patterns that are handed down from generation to generation.
You can create a genogram using:
- a piece of paper and a pencil
- butcher paper or poster board if you want to make a larger display and have more room to work
- a computer software program like GenoPro
- use a word proceessing or spreadspreet program like Microsoft Word or Excel
- use a workbook like, A Family Genogram Workbook
You can see the rules for building a genogram and some examples of diagrams at the GenoPro site. I have not used the software, but the instructions and examples on this page are excellent. The Westchester University site also has a page of Genogram Symbols you can print out or refer to. Make yourself familiar with the symbols before proceeding with these instructions or print them out to refer back to.
Making Your Genogram
Start your genogram at the bottom with your own information. Include your current spouse or partner, ex-spouses or ex-partners and your children. Complete the same information about your siblings and their families. Move to your parents. Include all of their spouses or partners and their children. If your mother had three husbands and you have stepsiblings, include these in the genogram. Be sure to include all of your parents' siblings, their children and their major relationships.
Keep working your way backward until you have as many generations as you can realistically account for. Completing at least three generations is recommended. Complete the same information for your grandparents as you did for your parents your aunts and your uncles.
Once you have the basic family tree completed start filling in psychologically pertinent information. When adding this information it is important to add what you believe to be true, regardless of whether the family agrees with you or whether an official diagnosis was made. For example, if you believe Uncle Jose was depressed put that on your genogram, even if it was never officially diagnosed. If you believe Aunt Sue had an addiction to pain medications put that on your genogram, even if the family denies it or tries to hide it.
You can use words or symbols, whatever makes it easier for you to see patterns. Symbols usually make it easier to identify patterns and you can create your own color coding or annotations to indicate different issues. For instance, you make add a tiny pink triangle to victims of breast cancer or a tiny yellow square to individuals who experienced depression. You can develop your own coding legend, as long as you are consistent throughout your genogram. Add as many details as you wish about each member of each family. Here are some examples of things you might want to include. Feel free to add any other information you believe to be relevant.
- Birth Order - be sure to arrange siblings in a family in the proper birth order
- Deaths, who is deceased - who, when and from what did they die?
- Divorces/Separations - who and when?
- Substance Abuse - specify the substance(s) used, include prescription medication or anything that appeared to be addictive even if over the counter medication or legal substances, include inhalants such as spray paint or White Out
- Psychiatric Illnesses
- Trauma - this can be from anything, war, a horrible accident, abuse as a child
- Molestation/Incest/Child Abuse - any abuses which happened to family members as children
- Gender Roles - are the women on one side of the family very strong? Very passive? Are the men very authoritarian? Are they absent from the family structure?
- Religious Beliefs - what was actually practiced or not practiced, not what was claimed
- Domestic Violence
- Relationships - document hostilities, alliances, surrogate spouses, etc. Were relationships enmeshed, distant or healthy? Document this using the horizontal lines.
- Gay, Lesbian, Transvestite or Transsexual individuals
- Military Service
- Parenting Styles - were your parents very authoritarian or more laissez-faire? Your grandparents?
- Cultural information - is anyone in the family a first generation immigrant? Speak a different language? Practice a different religion? Any cultural information that may have played a part in family dynamics should be included
- Ethnic backgrounds
- Legal - any arrests or charges
- Family Roles
- Medical Issues
- Disabilities of any Kind
- Financial Problems
- Personality Characteristics
- Gifts or Abilities
When you have it completed, sit back and look for patterns. Some of these examples are stereotypical, but these are just examples of some typical patterns which may emerge. Be open to anything you might see, whether it fits within expected norms or not. You are here to see the truth about your family.
Were all the girls on one side of the family molested as children? (Yes, I've seen this many, many times, unfortunately.)
Were all the boys on one side of the family molested as children?
Do all the women in one family marry abusive partners? Do all the men?
Does alcoholism run through one branch of your family tree? Drugs? Prescription abuse?
Is there depression in one family line? Bipolar Disorder? Schizophrenia? Anxiety?
Alliances and Coalitions
Examine the power structure in families. Who has the power and how is it used?
- Does every father in one family line rule with an iron hand?
- Do the women marry irresponsible partners who disappear and leave the women raising the families?
- Do the mother and the oldest son of each generation ally against the father?
- Do the father and youngest daughter ally against the mother?
- Were the women in the family always hostile towards each other? Or did they all stick together?
- Do the parents in each family of one lineage form a healthy partnership and maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and the children?
- Do the children run the family in one family line?
Research has shown that Holocaust survivors actually passed down the trauma from the ordeal through two succeeding generations, to their grandchildren. Look for trauma and trauma symptoms. Who experienced it and was it transmitted through the generations? Depression and anxiety issues may be an indicator of this. Was it only transmitted to women or men, or was it transmitted to both genders equally? Was it only transmitted to the oldest or the youngest?
Marriage and Divorce
What kind of relationship patterns do you see in your family line? Long, healthy marriages or numerous divorces? Or are there few marriages at all and mostly turbulent, short-term relationships?
Are there several unnatural, violent or premature deaths in your family line? Deaths from suicide? Deaths as a result of violence? Deaths as a result of substance abuse? Deaths from a common medical problem that runs through your lineage?
Look for patterns among the youngest, oldest and middle children of each family and generation. Is the youngest of every family babied? Does the oldest of every family have a substance abuse disorder?
Is there a pattern of illegal behavior in one family line? Is there a pattern of assault charges or theft charges? This could help you identify other patterns related to substance abuse, domestic violence, explosive personalities, mental illness or financial problems.
Are all the women in one lineage high strung or overly emotional? Or are they very reserved and distant? Are the men stoic and unemotional or explosive and angry?
Is the oldest child in every family the Hero? The youngest the Lost Child?
Continue looking at the various issues present in your family tree and look for patterns. Look for patterns across gender (i.e. all the women), across generations (i.e. all the sons or grandsons) and across birth order (i.e. all the middle children). If you see a pattern that makes sense to you but is not listed here don't discount it. I can't possibly include all the possible patterns in every family. This is for your enlightenment and education. If you see a pattern that explains something about your family, trust it. They're your family and you know them better than anyone.