A genogram is a picture of a person’s family relationships and history. It goes beyond a traditional family tree allowing the creators to visualize patterns and psychological factors that affect relationships.
Genograms were first developed in clinical psychology and family therapy settings by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson and popularized through the publication of a book titled Genograms: Assessment and Intervention in 1985. This new system visualized the client in the context of other relatives including parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings, children, nephews, and nieces.
Genograms are now used by various groups of people in a variety of fields such as medicine, psychology, social work, genetic research, education, and youth work to name but a few.
Most social work practitioners in personal and family therapy use genograms alongside sociograms for personal records and/or to explain family dynamics to their clients.
Why would I use a genogram?
A genogram is a really useful tool for helping us to understand the key people and relationships in a client’s life. It can also help us to see patterns within those relationships and generational patterns which are affecting our clients. Because of the pictorial nature of genograms, it easily shows issues and concerns that might not be spoken about usually in a non-threatening manner.
Genograms also help our clients to put a framework together that explains their circumstances. Many young people who are being abused struggle to speak about it, however showing them how to draw a genogram can lead them to draw the abusive relationship which opens the dialogue. It can also help them see their own struggles using a strengths-based way of working through the issues.
Most of all genograms can change. They are a picture of what is happening now. When I work with families, it is often when they are on the brink of an all-out war. Their genograms often look like a child got hold of the textas. Colour everywhere and squiggly lines as far as the eye can see. After a few months, we revisit and there are a few less squiggly lines and a few less colours. It is then that I show them their old genograms and ask what has happened to make these changes happen. It is a great tool for showing the changes and progress on their healing journey.
So what is in a genogram?
A genogram uses shapes to convey meaning. Squares are males, circles are females, and triangles are pregnancy related. A cross through the shape means a death. Pets even get a jersey! The shapes begin to tell us how many people and what sex they are. At this point, we can add ages, names, dates of birth, and death. We can add as much personal information as is needed.
The next step is for us to add how the relationships are brought together. Otherwise, we just have a bunch of shapes on a page. Marriage is a solid line, divorce has two strokes through it. Dating is a dotted line etc.
Finally, we need to look at the emotional nature of the relationships. Are the relationships harmonious? Are there friendships or even best friends? Are they in love? Perhaps there is even hostility in the relationship. Is there violence, mistrust, or even a family feud? Perhaps there is abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse.
All of these little bits of information come together to paint a picture of how a person’s family and relationships affect them. It shows the patterns and the history that make a person who they are. It can show situations, intergenerational concerns, and family dynamics that create the environment for our clients to struggle. It can also be used as a therapeutic tool to address the struggles and bring about strength.