What is a genogram? A genogram is a highly detailed family tree that is useful for healthcare and mental health professionals in illuminating and understanding family history that depicts how hereditary patterns and psychological factors impact relationships. Mental health professionals utilize genograms as part of family assessments to learn about an individual’s life within the context of his or her family system. Oftentimes, individuals learn a great deal about their own family dynamics when a therapist constructs a genogram with them. Genograms may be used to “freeze-frame a moment in the past,” such as a critical event or onset of illness within an individual’s family to explain current dynamics and decide on the best course of treatment for growth and healing.
Monica McGoldrick, LCSW, Ph.D., and Randy Gerson, who wrote the book Genograms: Assessment and Intervention in 1985, created the genogram. Used in medicine, psychiatry, education, research, family therapy and other professions, genograms are powerful tools for connecting intergenerational patterns and understanding them as more than coincidental.
Key features of a genogram include the identified patient, or individual, and two generations of family. Thus, there are three generations total on most genograms and sometimes more. There is always a unique key, as on a map, created for each genogram to assist the clinician, individual, and any others who read the genogram with interpretation. Just as it is impossible to accurately read a map without a key, genograms are nearly meaningless without a key. The identified patient or individual is connected to others on the genogram through lines depicting biological and legal relationships from one generation to the next.
In order to ease reading and interpreting genograms created by various professionals and individuals, Monica McGoldrick and a task force of professionals established a set of standardized symbols and guidelines. McGoldrick popularized the genogram in her extensive work with families. You can see a brief video clip of her in action here.
There are always at least three levels on a genogram. Level one is where the family structure is mapped out. Level two notes family information for the individual and family members, such as ages, dates of birth and death, locations, occupations, and educational levels. Level two also shows functioning information like objective data about medical, emotional, and behavioral functioning of family members. Critical events are embedded in level two to reveal major changes, relationship transitions, and losses. The most complex level is level three, where family relationships are explained through differing lines. Sometimes, clinicians will depict level three on a separate genogram due to its complexity.
Genograms in practice at TCS allow counselors, social workers, and interns to learn a great deal about our students, young adults, and their families. Further, we seek to create a defined space where individuals have an opportunity to think about and discuss their familial relationships through constructing genograms. This can take place during family assessments, family-themed affinities classes, individual counseling, and/or family therapy. I have included pictures below to give you an idea of what genograms, genogram symbols, and genogram keys can look like. The genogram is from a collection of public images on the Internet and not a TCS student or young adult.
Standard Genogram Symbols
Interested in creating your own genogram? Click here.
– Chrissy Bruso