family tree

3 Best Steps to Create a Genogram


A genogram is a type of chart or family history that uses special symbols to describe relationships, major events, and the dynamics within a family across multiple generations. It can be viewed as a particularly detailed family tree. Mental health and healthcare professionals often use genograms to identify patterns in mental or physical illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, cancer, and other inherited diseases. To create a genogram, you will first need to interview your family members. Then you can use standardized symbols to represent your findings in a chart that documents your family’s specific history.

Decide what you want to learn from the genogram

Determine your intention for creating a genogram.

Determining the purpose of the genogram will help focus your attention on the type of information you want to gather about your family. You should also consider who you want to share the completed chart with – some information may be too disturbing or sensitive for certain family members, so you should act accordingly. Genograms can focus on a number of inherited patterns, such as issues such as substance abuse, mental illness, physical abuse, but also some physical illnesses. Genograms can provide healthcare workers with a visual tool that traces the history of your current mental health or medical inclinations through your family tree.

Be clear about what you are looking for.

Once you know why you are doing a genogram – for a healthcare person, for a school project, or just to get to know yourself and your family better – asking what you are looking for will help you decide how to proceed plan to populate the genogram with data. Genograms are like family trees. Except that in addition to looking at the branches, you also look at the leaves on each branch. Not only will you learn who is part of your family, but also how they relate to each other and what their physical and emotional relationships are. For example, a genogram can tell you who is married, divorced, widowed, etc. It will also tell you how many children were born of each union (usually between two people), what each child is like, and the personal relationships between the people are, on more than just the physical level. Think about what kind of information you want to learn from the genogram. Do you want to know who in your family suffers from depression, addiction or cancer? Maybe you want to know more about why your mom and her mom don’t get along? By following the right clues, you’ll be able to create a genogram that fits your purpose.

Decide how many generations you will represent in your genogram.

This will give you an idea of ​​who to contact to get the information you need for your artwork, and if that’s even possible given your age or geographic distance. Luckily, you can also use email, Skype, and other communication methods to connect with family members you can’t meet in person. Determining how far back you want to go will also make the process easier and faster. Would you like to start with your grandparents? Maybe you want to go further back in time, to your great-grandparents. Again, this will tell you more about who to contact.

Develop a series of questions that you will ask yourself and your relatives.

Use the intent behind your genogram to formulate a few questions that you will ask to gather as much information as possible as quickly as possible. Here are a few examples: “Starting with your grandmother, what was her name, who was she married to and when/how did she die? What was their ethnicity?” “How many children did your mother’s parents have?”

Research the family history

Write down what you already know.

In all likelihood, you already know some of your family history, especially if you are close to one or more family members. Take a look at the questions you created and see how many of them you can answer yourself.

Talk to your family

When you’ve exhausted your own knowledge, it’s time to talk to family members. Ask questions about family relationships and significant events, and keep a good record of their answers. While the questions you wrote down are a good way to help you keep track of your findings, listening to stories from your family members might also provide you with other useful information that you hadn’t thought of. Keep in mind that these conversations may be difficult for some family members. Be prepared to listen to lots of stories. Narration is one of the most important means of remembering and transmitting data. Use this fact by listening carefully and asking open-ended questions to motivate the other person to share more information with you.

Search family books and documents as well as the internet.

Sometimes your family won’t be able to remember everything you need to know, or they may not even want to share it with you. Internet research or family books can be used to verify what you have learned from your family or to fill in gaps in their accounts. However, if you decide to use this information, you should be absolutely sure that it is correct.

Look at your own past.

You certainly have a wealth of information in your own past that can be useful to base your research on. Gather information about your medical history. Also, take a look at the medications you take, as you can use this data to find out if other family members are taking the same or similar medications for a particular condition.

Get to know the family relationships.

When creating a genogram, you will need to know how each family member relates to each other. Explore the connections between family members by collecting data on marriages, divorces, children, etc. Note who is married, who is divorced, and who is living together outside of marriage. Is anyone widowed? Are there separations or even forced separations? Depending on what you want to learn from your genogram, it might be necessary to ask some deeper and sometimes uncomfortable questions to determine the relationships. You may want to know if anyone in your family has had a one-night stand or one or more very short-lived romantic relationships, or if anyone has ever been in a forced marriage. Be aware of who you’re talking to and what kind of questions you’re asking, as this could be very awkward for some.

Learn about emotional relationships.

Now that you know how everyone in your family is connected, it’s time to learn about the emotional relationships your family members have/had. Revealing the answers to emotional questions will be extremely useful when attempting to reveal psychological factors in your family. Is a union loving? Do the parties involved get along? Maybe some in your family can’t stand each other? As you dig deeper, keep an eye out for patterns of abuse and neglect. You can go even further and differentiate between physical and emotional components.

Create the genogram

Now create your genogram.

There are templates for genograms available online, or you can start from scratch and fill one out by hand. You can also purchase software designed specifically for genograms.

Use standardized genogram symbols to represent family members and the relationships between them, both normal and dysfunctional.

The icons serve as visual markers for the information you gathered through your interviews. You can draw the symbols by hand or use the “Draw” or “Shapes” functions in a word processor. Men are represented with a square. When a marriage is depicted, the male symbol is on the left. Women are represented with a circle. When a marriage is depicted, the female symbol is on the right. A single horizontal line indicates marriage and two slashes indicate separation. The eldest child always stands below the parents and to the left of their family, while the youngest should also stand below but on the right. Other symbols are available to represent events in the family, such as pregnancy or miscarriage, illness or death. There’s even a diamond-shaped icon for pets.

Order the chart based on family relationships, starting with the oldest generation you want to represent.

For example, you could start with your grandparents or even your great-grandparents. Genograms can be used both to show the diversity within a family’s relationships and to identify patterns in diseases, for example. A genogram includes symbols for family interactions, such as conflict, closeness, alienation, and others. Emotional relationships are represented by specific symbols that help to keep the genogram clear. There are also symbols that indicate sexual or physical abuse, as well as mental and physical illnesses.

Look for patterns.

Once you’ve created your genogram, you can look carefully and see any patterns that can be read from it. There may be inherited patterns or certain psychological tendencies that are not apparent until grouped in this way. Be careful about making assumptions. The data is one thing, but avoid using it to determine that there is a specific medical condition or mental health issue in your family. Talk to a medical professional about potentially inherited problems of this type. Avoid using the genogram to make assumptions about a family member’s motives or to confront them. Also, if you find out that your aunt has a tendency to quit every job she’s ever had and your cousin always seems to be stealing other people’s partners, it’s not a good idea to use the genogram to “prove” that you are right, or that someone in your family needs psychoanalysis. Beware of treating your family in a biased or judgmental way just because you created this genogram; talk to a family counselor or other counseling agency before jumping to conclusions from a genogram you’ve created yourself. When you’re writing down family history, patterns you’ve uncovered using a genogram can be very useful in explaining why ancestors left a certain area, what kind of relationship problems there were, or it could help identify other family members can be found that have not yet been officially recognized.

Final Words

Keep your completed genogram in a safe place. The information presented in this chart could be embarrassing or harmful to some family members. Always respect the privacy of family members when sharing your genogram with non-family members. Genograms can also be used for plant or animal species to find mutations or survival skills etc. This can be great practice for the classroom; have students choose a known person and research that person’s family background with the goal of creating a genogram. This shouldn’t be very difficult using the internet, but there are limitations – this should be a research exercise but not necessarily complete (or exhaustive). Genograms are also known as McGoldrick-Gerson studies or Lapidus schemes.


About the Author

Helen Miller

Helen Miller is a freelance writer at CouponKirin. She covers personal finance topics in a syndicated column that appears in Financial Planning Magazine. Her work has been featured by Market Watch, Digital Journal, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Yahoo Finance. Helen has a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of California, Los Angeles.