None of us were created out of the mist, but have generations of family members that came before us. Even if we are no longer speaking to them, or know nothing about them, these people continue to have an influence on us–even it’s unconscious. How do we bring this influence into consciousness? Enter the genogram!
Simply put, a genogram is a graphic representation of a family tree that displays detailed information about relationships among individuals. It is more complicated than a traditional family tree as it can include individuals’ characteristics, health history, cause of death, emigration patterns…basically anything that the therapist and/or client feel they would like to add to the document.
If you’re curious and want to discover more about the structure and history of genograms, you can check out this Wikipedia entry.
The Use of Genograms in Therapy
When I begin to work with a new client, one of the first things we often do is create a genogram. This is a joint process, and the document is created from the client’s perspective. We start with the client and work outwards by adding partner(s), siblings, children, parents, etc.–going as far back as grandparents–though sometimes farther back if it will be useful.
Once we have the added the people, then we start to include ‘relationships’ between the client and key people on the chart. Are they close or distant? Who doesn’t speak to whom? Who disappeared from the family never to be heard from again?
Often a useful component is the addition of a few words describing each person on the chart. As a client tells their family history/personal story, additions are made to the chart. For example, perhaps emigration is a large part of a family history, which effects the relationships between members that stay in the country or origin and those that leave. It’s also interesting to track items such as divorce, suicide and drug/alcohol use over the generations.
While genograms follow a definite structure and use specific symbols, each chart is as individual as the person creating it. In fact, their usefulness is due to their flexibility as we can include any information that feels important to the creators.
The genogram is a ‘living document’ and the product of an iterative process. As more information comes to light during the course of therapy, it may be added to the chart. We can also go back to the chart during sessions to confirm thoughts or perceptions when needed.
The Client Response to Creating a Genogram
Ideally, creating a genogram is an enjoyable activity. It can be interesting to look at our family history from this perspective. When I ask clients what they think of the process, I often hear about how they never thought of their family in this way and are enlightened when they start to see the patterns that emerge.
Clients often apologize when they don’t know information for the chart. However, it’s all good information–even not knowing is valuable. Why don’t they know? What does this say about their family system? It’s acceptable not to know as it’s all grist for the mill.
The Use Of Genograms In Couple Work
Genograms can also be completed when working with couples. In this case, we complete a chart for both partners–‘marrying’ it into a whole picture. It’s often fascinating to see how family of origin pieces affect their current relationship and how each person is being affected by family history.
The Benefits of Creating a Genogram
Besides showing multi-generational patterns, one of the benefits of completing a genogram is that it puts some distance between the clients and the current concern(s) that brings a couple or individual into therapy. We can see the challenge from another, less-personal perspective.
Another benefit is the unveiling of family secrets. Holes in family of origin information often point to family secrets. Why don’t we know what happened to Great Uncle Ed? Why did Cousin Louise disappear only to return suddenly? How come no one talks about Aunt Nancy? Family secrets are important as they are part of the rules that govern families. As these rules often affect our core beliefs and subsequent mental health, it’s important that we explore them. A genogram is often the first hint that a secret exists.
A third benefit of a genogram is as a tool to encourage interactions between family members. While in grad school I created a complex genogram as part of a family of origin course. In order to fill in missing information, I had to initiate conversations with family members that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. While these talks were not always easy, the results were worth the effort, both for information gained and relationships renewed.
It’s Not Our Ancestors’ Fault–At Least Not Intentionally
One of the pitfalls of a genogram is the possibility of blaming our family for our current struggles. While they may have a part to play–especially as patterns are repeatedly acted out, at the end of the day it’s safe to say that parents desire to love their children unconditionally and attempting to do their best. However, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. Why?
Dr. Gabor Maté, in his book, When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, writes about how multi-generational stress and trauma affect the ability of parents to attach to their children. It is well-documented that our attachment style (secure vs. insecure) is a key component of our mental health and the way we interact with others. Our ability to handle stress is deeply related to brain development, both before and post birth, as much of our brain development continues well into the first years of age. Therefore, if our grandparents were stressed and unable to attach securely to our parents, it affected our parent’s brain development and their ability to attach…and on it goes.
Dr. Maté states:
“Parenting styles do not reflect greater or lesser degrees of love in the heart of the mother and father; other, more mundane factors are at play. Parental love is infinite and for a very practical reason: the selfless nurturing of the young is embedded in the attachment apparatus of the mammalian brain…Where parenting fails to communicate unconditional acceptance to the child, it is because of the fact that the child receives the parent’s love not as the parent wishes but as it is refracted through the parent’s personality. … For better or worse, many of our parenting attitudes and responses have to do with our own experiences as children. That modes of parenting reflect the parent’s early childhood conditioning is evident both from animal observations and from sophisticated psychological studies of humans.” (p. 211-212)
What Do We Do With The Information?
Once we have looked at and integrated the information from a genogram, what do we do with it? Awareness is the key. When we begin to notice patterns, both in ourselves and in our relationships with others, we have taken a big step in making things better. We can choose to do something differently. We can choose not to continue the pattern to our children and grandchildren.
The “7th generation” principle taught by Indigenous tribes and Native Americans say that in every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, we must consider how it will affect our descendants seven generations into the future. This also relates to taking care of our mental health. When we do the hard work of healing the results of multi-generational stress and trauma, we not only benefit ourselves and those we are currently in relationship with, but also generations to come.
Now for some vintage comedy…family dynamics from the Carol Burnett Show. Enjoy!