Constructing and Interpreting Interaction Patterns

Tell Me About Genograms

What is a genogram?

A genogram is a family diagram, which can be thought of as an elaboration of the family tree. Genograms provide a way of mapping family patterns and relationships across at least three generations. Genograms report information on family structures like family trees do. For example, both a family tree and a genogram of the Adams family would report that Fred, the oldest of three sons of Mark and Leah, married Jane, the daughter and only child of Gary and Cathy. Both a genogram and a family tree would also report that, together, Fred and Jane have two children, Sam and Lucy.

What makes a genogram better than a family tree for understanding family relationships?

Using the above example, the genogram could reveal Jane’s conflictual relationship with Leah, Fred’s closeness to his parents, and Mark and Leah’s distant relationship. The genogram might also show that Fred and Jane had three miscarriages before Lucy’s birth and that Fred has an enmeshed relationship with Sam. Genograms show intergenerational patterns of relationships, communication, and other factors that influence families across generations.

Who used genograms?

Genograms are widely used by family therapists as a tool to map family relations, giving both therapists and clients an overview of family relationships and patterns. The genogram may help the therapist get to know the family and help them deal with their current issues. Genograms may help a husband and wife understand each other's learned patterns for responding to stressful situations, handling intimacy or conflict, or managing gender and cultural issues. Genograms are used by medical professionals to better understand their patients' medical, genetic and psychosocial history. Genograms are also useful for anyone who is interested in better understanding the patterns and issues in a family.

How are genograms constructed?

Genograms may be developed by individuals who know their family history and the genogram coding system (described in "Components " section). Genograms may be developed by therapists or workshop leaders who interview individuals about their history, draw the diagrams during the interview and help interpret them. Genograms reflect an individual's point of view. Although most members of a family agree on the basics of a family tree, there may be major differences when describing the relationships among family members. The person whose perspective is represented in a genogram may be referred to as the Index Person (IP).

How do genograms relate to family communication?

Genograms provide a broad framework in which we can view family relationships. Understanding the family is done in part by understanding family communication. Family communication both shapes and is shaped by family relationships. FOr instance, couples who attend marriage education classes learn better ways to communication with each other. Changing their communication habits in their marriage may ultimately have a major effect on their relationship. In another example, siblings who lose both parents at an early age may become very close. The relationship they have as children may have lasting effects on their communication throughout their lives. As they grow older, marry, and move far away from each other, they may still communication frequently, disclosing their disappointments and joys with each other. Those interested in family communication can learn a lot from genograms. As you learn more about genograms, keep the question of "How might this affect the family's communication?" in your mind.

What if two members of the same family disagree about the meaning of a genogram?

Interpretation is influenced by the creator of the genogram. There is no absolute "right" genogram for one family. Different family members may have differing perspectives on the relationships in the family and may therefore construct genograms of the same family very differently. For instance, perhaps the oldest child in a family has left home while his younger teenage sister is still at home. He may draw a genogram showing his sister as having closer relationships with their parents than he does. His father, however, may see his relationship with his daughter as strained, as she is going through her teenage years. He may view his adult son as more of a friend, and depict that relationship as closer.

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© 2010 Kathleen Galvin