The Humble Genogram: A structural map of your family dynamics

A functional family tree.

Genograms are an organizational tool for family counseling and therapy practices (DeMaria, Weeks, & Twist, 2017). These genograms are essentially diagrams with which a therapist can notate important connections, details, and cultural implications. By understanding and effectively utilizing a genogram, a therapist is able view a family system from a “birds eye” view and make broader connections across generations and between individuals. Genograms are generally created using “facts” as understood by the therapist. While this can be subjective, it also requires the therapist to be brief and focus on pertinent details of both the individuals and their relationships with one another.

What does a Genogram look like?

A genogram in the family system setting looks similar to a family tree with different types of lines between varying family members, these not only show the type of relationship each member of the family has but also the nature of that relationship. One example is a single or double thin line between a mother and father, this indicates a secure attachment and relationship with secure boundaries. See the diagram below from DeMaria, Weeks, & Twist (2017) for more examples of some of the types of symbols that are used in genogram mapping.

Attachment Mapping Symbols: Childhood Attachment Patterns; DeMaria, R., Weeks, G. R., Twist, M.L. C. (2017) Focused Genograms, 2nd ed.

Beyond these line symbols, important details and notes about the relationships between family members and about each individual are seen alongside these lines. This is meant to clarify the relationship and add additional information to better represent the family’s narrative/story.

Why do Genograms matter?

Focused genograms are structured in such a way that aspects such as timeline, cultural and societal impacts, major experiences, and direct structure of a family unit are mapped out which allows a therapist to gain insights into the overarching themes of the family, their relational patterns, and life stages (DeMaria, Weeks, & Twist, 2017). Genograms can be used to map family systems, couple interactions, and childhood attachments and this information allows a therapist to better understand the narrative of the family and provides areas to educate the family and begin generating a hypothesis for the family’s primary complaints (DeMaria, Weeks, & Twist, 2017; Gatfield, 2017). Patterns between generations may appear or perhaps the creation of the genogram will open the door for family members to discuss their opinions or concerns about their family’s structure and relationship dynamics.

What is the impact of a Genogram in practice?

In a genogram, attention is paid to each aspect of the family system which makes for a careful, diligent therapist, counselor or coach in gathering appropriate date to populate the genogram. Without a complete systemic picture, key information could be omitted and this can impact the client’s narrative and personal truth. This could lead to inappropriate connections being made or correct connections being missed and less effective practices as a result.

Genograms in art therapy.

As discussed by Gatfield (2017), a genogram can be an interactive therapeutic intervention. With the guidance of a coach, counselor or therapist, a family could work together to create a family tree of sorts with additional valuable information. Children can be brought into this process as well by using fingerpaints and different colors instead of complicated symbols for the mapping. Activities such as genograms can be incredibly insightful when working with children as some concepts are difficult to express verbally. Painting genograms allows for an easier interpretation for both parents/caregivers and coaches, counselors and therapists. Children are less likely to get frustrated or feel nervous/guilty about expressing their views on family dynamics as they do not have to assign specific words to them, it is simply a colored line with a general meaning the family has agreed to.

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