A genogram is the graphical representation of relationships and structures within a family. As a rule, all family members of several generations (family of origin and current family) are recorded in a genogram.
A genogram is frequently used as a basis or supplement for a Family Constellation or Systemic Therapy as well as in couple and family coaching. It serves to understand relationship patterns and connections within a family, as well as to illustrate recurrent patterns in the family history.
What are genograms good for?
A genogram provides a good overview of the family, the family tree and their structure. From a meta-perspective, relationship patterns can be recognized. Frequently, family patterns that appear again and again can be traced back over several generations. By using a genogram, one's own life story and life experiences can be classified in a larger context. Thus, certain behaviors, decisions, crises, taboos, fates or illnesses can be better understood and arranged against the family background. Visualization with the help of a genogram can help to gather information from the family history, to sort this and make connections transparent.
Origins and history of the genogram
The genogram evolved from the work of several key family therapy practitioners. The first family trees (genograms) were created by the American psychiatrist and psychotherapist Murray Bowen. Bowen (1913-1990) is considered one of the founders of Systemic Therapy. His goal was to use genograms to gain an overview of family generations and existing family patterns. Ivan Boszorményi-Nagy (1920-2007), a Hungarian-born physician and psychiatrist, co-founded one of the first family therapy research centers in Philadelphia (USA) that later became the largest family therapy training center in the US. He assumed, among other things, that invisible bonds exist within the family structure and express themselves as "emotional debts". These debts are recorded over the course if generations and must be repaid over and over again. Symptoms present in a family member are a sign of outstanding debt. Therefore, the family background should always be considered in therapy.
He introduced the multi-generational perspective as an important innovation that is today an integral part of Family Constellation work. The family therapist Virginia Satir (1916 - 1988) brought the development forward. Building on Bowen's and Boszorményi-Nagy's work, Satir developed the "Family Sculpture" to visualize family relationships, in which family members position themselves like statues that interact with each other. Finally, family therapists Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson adopted Bowen’s idea (generational family pattern) and systematically developed the genogram as we know it today. Although the idea had existed for a long time, the genogram was only introduced to family therapy at the beginning of the 1990s.
Who should be recorded in a genogram template?
A genogram captures all members of the family tree. The family of the spouse or life partner does not matter, after all, it is not about their own family of origin. If, however, there is a person who has a great importance in one’s own life, this person can then also be noted. Of course, when creating a genogram for one's own children, the family of the spouse/partner, if that person is the other parent, will also be included and outlined. All family members are listed, including those who died young, missing or marginalized members. These include one’s own siblings, parents, their siblings, grandparents and their siblings, as well as step-parents or persons who belonged in any way to the family. Miscarriages or stillbirths in the family circle are also noted.
Instructions for creating a genogram – an overview
- Step: Gathering Information: What do you know about the family? Who belongs to it? What were special events within the family? Collect and record as much detailed information as you can over several generations of the family.
- Step: Create a Genogram Structure: A kind of family tree is created using predefined symbols. All family members and their kinship relationships are shown in a sketch. It starts with the person for whom the genogram is being created, followed by the presentation of the parent generation, then lastly that of the grandparents and possibly those of the great-grandparents.
- Step: Significant Events: After the basic structure has been created, further information (occupation, separations, deaths, strokes of fate, achievements etc.) will be added, as far as they are known.
- Step: Evaluation: Now the genogram can be systematically evaluated. Where are there parallels between family members? Are there similar careers, relationship patterns, separations, difficulties that keep recurring? Is there a recognizable connection to current problems or crises?
Detailed instructions for creating a genogram
Creating a genogram template requires some preparation. How you actually proceed depends on whether you want to sketch a genogram for your own family or whether it is being created for a client as part of a coaching process. In the first case, you can start researching relatives yourself and collecting information. In genogram work with coaching clients, the interview guide shown in section 1.2 offers appropriate questions.
1. Preparing, gathering information and research
1.1 Creating a genogram of one’s own family
If you want to create a genogram of your own family, it is best to proceed step by step and gradually familiarize yourself with your family history. Gather as much information about your family as possible. Write down everything you know about your siblings, parents, grandparents, uncle and aunts. Ask family members, especially older ones, about the family’s history. Be sensitive. Browsing through photo albums can be a good start here. Some relatives will be happy to tell you things, while others could be more concerned that sensitive issues may come to light. Be appreciative and approach the research and conversations without prejudice. Even your own siblings are often a treasure trove of memories that you may have forgotten.
Information about the following are especially helpful
- Birthdays and dates of death
- Birthplace and residences
- Jobs, professions
- Serious strokes of fate and diseases
- Experiences in a war
- Corporate bankruptcies or major financial losses
- Exceptional or very early deaths
- Special awards and achievements
- Family traditions or a family motto
- Taboos and family secrets (as far as they are told)
Of course, these preparations are also possible for clients in family counseling or coaching, provided they have enough time for it. From a practical point of view, the research will presumably take place in the course of the coaching process and the client will initially only be able to provide the information already known to him.
1.2 Creating a genogram for a client
When creating a genogram, a structured questionnaire is useful to capture as much information as possible. In addition, other family members can be interviewed to get a comprehensive picture and fill in gaps in knowledge. The following questions are suggestions. It has proven useful to first collect information about the client and his family, then ask for information about previous generations (parents, grandparents).
Information about the client
- What is your marital status? Married? Divorced? Is this your first or second marriage?
- Do you have children? How many? Girl or boy? What are their names?
- With which partner did you have these children (if there have been several partners)?
- Do you live in a patchwork family?
- Are there any foster or adoptive children?
- Do you have siblings? How many? Do you have half-siblings? What are their names?
- Which position among your siblings do you have (first, second child, etc.)?
- Were there any miscarriages / abortions / stillbirths within your family? Affecting your siblings or your own children?
- If you are not sure, do you suspect that? (This question can also be omitted on the spot, but sometimes there are suspicions or unclear feelings, so that even at this point a note can be made).
- When were the individual members of the family born? If someone has already died, when was it?
- Have there been separations / divorces? When did these take place?
Information about the client’s family of origin
- What’s your mother’s name? What’s the name of your father?
- Are your parents (still) married?
- Were there any other important partnerships for one parent (or both), e.g., previous marriages, engagements, etc.?
- Do / did your parents have siblings? How many? Half-siblings? Brothers or sisters? What are their names?
- Which position among their sibling did your mother / father have?
- Were there miscarriages / abortions / stillbirths? (Also guesses can be noted).
- Are there any step-parents?
- Are your parents / siblings still alive?
- When were the individual members born? If someone has already died, when was that?
- Are there any separations / divorces? When did these take place?
Information about the parents’ families of origin
Start with one parent and their family, then the other family. Here is how to keep track.
- What are the names of your mother's parents?
- Were they married? Birthdays / dates of death? Siblings? Miscarriages etc.? Step-parents? Ask for the information as above (client’s family of origin)
- What are the names of the father's parents?
- Were they married? Birthdays / dates of death? Siblings? Miscarriages etc.? Step-parents? Ask for the information as above (client’s family of origin)
Corresponding questions, as far as they can be answered, can also be asked for the generation of grandparents.
Further questions about the family
In addition to the biographical data already recorded, additional information is now requested, as far as it has not been revealed in free conversation.
- What do you / your parents / grandparents do for a living?
- Are or were there other persons who are important, e.g., because they lived with the family?
- Was there any emigration, flight or expulsion within the family? Were there special features due to war? Missing, dead, prisoner of war, concentration camp?
- Were there alcohol or drug abuse, illness or serious emotional problems?
- Was there any severe disability?
- Were children given away? To a home? To foster parents?
- Was there any conflict with the law? Prison time?
- Were there major financial losses? Bankruptcies?
- Are there people who are particularly close to each other within the family or who had any great conflict with each other?
- Are there any outcast family members or people who have broken contact or have disappeared?
- What are the special strengths / resources within your family? Special achievements? Awards? Family cohesion?
You do not have to work through the questions as in a catalog. Often the client will tell more if he can tell more freely. The questions are a guide to writing down all the important things, but they can also be answered in a free conversation.
2. Graphical representation – the proven genogram template and symbols
After (or even during) the collection of information, the individual family members and their relationship to each other are visualized. It makes sense to start with one's own generation, starting from one's own person and existing siblings. These are all arranged in a horizontal line. A level above it, the parents are visually represented, and a level above that, the grandparents and on another level higher possibly the great-grandparents. Certain symbols have been established for graphical representation. This genogram template is based on the symbols usually used and based on those of McGoldrick and Gerson. Occasionally, individual symbols are modified.
Example of a simple genogram
About the symbols and their arrangement
- Male persons are drawn with a square, females with a circle. The subject person is additionally marked by a dot in the middle.
- In the arrangement of the parent pairs, the men are placed on the left and the women on the right. The arrangement of siblings takes place in the order of their birth, on the left is the firstborn, on the right the youngest child.
- The relationships between couples and parent-child relationships are represented by lines.
- The solid line symbolizes a marriage / dotted line a marriage-like relationship.
- a Christian cross or "X" means "deceased" (both are common in the literature, it makes sense to opt for one version and then use it consistently).
- A triangle means "gender unknown" (for example, in stillbirths or for family members, about whom one could not learn much more)
- Twins, adoptive and foster children are indicated by their own symbols.
- For abortions, miscarriages or still-births extra symbols are used.
- The connecting lines can be marked with additional symbols, e.g. Divorce, conflict, broken relationship etc.
(A detailed overview of genogram symbolism can be found in Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson's "Genograms in Family Counseling", see bibliography below.)
3. Personal data and special events
Once all the data is recorded, as can be found in family trees, names, marriages, birth and death dates, children, etc., special events are added. What else is known about the family members?
- Occupation, nationality
- Striking character traits (violent, caring, very introspective, etc.)
- Special talents and gifts (artist, musical, language talent, comedian, etc.)
- Special features (diseases, alcoholism, constantly traveling, prison stay, famous singer, successful entrepreneur etc.)
- Everything that is still told about individual members (ladies’ man, unfaithful, chronically bankrupt etc.)
The data can first be noted down on Post-its. Most likely, there will be a lot to comment upon for some members, while others will seem to have fewer characteristics. That, too, can be an interesting clue if someone has obviously been barely noticed.
The relationships between each other can also be depicted by supplementary symbols (see connecting lines). You can use your own symbols if they are very meaningful.
4. Evaluation, discovering connections, gaining insights
Now we come to the evaluation and thus to the actual genogram work. This is probably the most interesting part for some. Many insights and “aha” experiences probably arose while the genogram was being created (example: "All the first-born women in the family remained unmarried or entered the monastery.") Thus, some initial conclusions can already be deduced.
The complete genogram now offers a good overview. It quickly becomes apparent where fatalities piled up, where lifestyles resembled each other, or where the same relationship patterns occurred. Where are there recognizable connections to current difficulties or life crises?
The evaluation of the genogram should be solution-oriented. That is, no rash interpretations should be made. Instead, it makes more sense to approach the evaluation with concrete questions.
- What do current symptoms / illnesses / crises possibly have to do with my family?
- Where does the family system demonstrate resources, supportive relationships, helpful talents that can be used?
- What makes me particularly thoughtful? Sad? Angry?
- Which patterns are recognizable here?
- What approaches to solving problems are there in my family history? How were crises mastered, fatalities dealt with?
The questions mentioned are just a suggestion and can be expanded as desired. The genogram provides an inexhaustible basis for exploring your own family history. In depth, the findings can now be approached professionally. For example, in a systemic coaching process, or in Systemic Therapy. The genogram can also be the basis for a Family Constellation, since a lot of information is already known.
Practical tips for creating a genogram
The creation of a genogram can take several days or weeks. Here are a few practical tips:
- First make an outline of all the information. Once you have the most important things together, you can transfer it to the genogram cleanly.
- Use a large sheet (roll of wrapping paper, flipchart paper, possibly several glued side by side)
- Choose Landscape format.
- Start with the client, this is entered in the middle at the bottom.
- If you cannot guess how much space will be needed, first stick the individual members with little Post-it's.
- There is also software you can download for creating a genogram, many of them are free. However, hardly anyone is able to print a chart in a meaningful flipchart size at home. However, as a start, these programs can be a good help.