Category Archives: Family Estrangement Topics

About Genograms


“I was thinking how complicated life is and how there are no simple roads or paths. We are a fabric of mistakes and hurts; a family tree of fumbled attempts, successes and failures.”
― Belinda Jeffrey

There’s been some discussion and comments about the use of genograms and I thought I would make some time to look at the use of genograms generally. There’s a great deal that can be said about genograms and I should be clear that not every person, whether clinician or lay person, uses them in the same way or for the same purposes. So this post then, is a general discussion of genograms and how they can be used in therapeutic work. Maybe I will write another post about the specific value of using genograms for estrangement work, however I suspect even a broad discussion will make the value of genograms clear.

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 {structural and functional} across generations. Genograms provide a visual representation of family structures like family trees do, however, they also show intergenerational patterns of relationships, communication, connection / disconnection, quality of relationship, and significant life events of family members  that influence families across generations.

Who uses genograms?

A genogram is a part of many professionals work. Medical professionals might use a genogram to highlight health patterns and problems across the family, intergenerationally. An addictions therapist might use a genogram to trace patterns of substance use and abuse. A therapist might use a genogram to trace any number of factors including things like emotional and behavioural patterns across the family system, through time. Social workers sometimes undertake genograms to capture the same things other therapists are interested in, but also to explore broader social factors that impact upon families ie. migration, economic stability and poverty, institutional involvement {ie. criminal justice, family court, adoptions, removal of children, hospitalizations, education, religion etc.} and systems of support accessed by  family members {eco-mapping} and also to look at “family” {how family is conceptualized and socially constructed} more broadly when it is important and useful to do so.

It’s also not uncommon for individuals to start working on their family geneology {family tree} and to begin to develop it more fully to include relational patterns and themes. In short, anyone who has an interest in assessing the overall background of a family might find undertaking a genogram to be a useful exercise.

Limitations of genograms

Firstly, a genogram is generally created through the viewpoint of an individual and as such, reflects their view of the family, family members and family dynamics. Other family members might see the genogram differently. They may know different things or emphasize different relationships, patterns or themes. Genograms sometimes change across time as family circumstances change, perspectives change and additional information becomes available. Sometimes genograms fail to capture the different views of family as expressed by different cultures – this comes down to the experience and understanding of the person undertaking the genogram, and their ability to create a ‘living record’ that best expresses the family as understood by the individual.

Benefits of using a genogram

From my perspective there are so many benefits to creating a genogram. I am sure that I will capture some and miss others. The benefits of creating a genogram may change across different clients and families – something that is of critical importance to one person, may be of less importance or interest to another. Here’s some general advantages to using a genogram:

1. A genogram is a visual representation of a family – it provides a broad “birds eye” view of the family. A genogram can be very illuminating as it provides a great deal of information that is easily “seen” as opposed to writing a family history which may take many pages of text.

2. A genogram seeks a holistic overview of the family. As individuals we tend to emphasize certain relationships, patterns and themes and may easily miss or overlook others. We might not see aspects of relatedness that may be subtle {or not so subtle} yet exert a great deal of influence on the family. Most importantly, a genogram helps us to look at family as a “system”.

3. A genogram facilitates the ability of individuals to see commonalities and uniqueness in family members. It can pinpoint emergent identity collisions and can be an excellent tool for identity development work.

4. A genogram helps explore connection and relatedness in an explicit and visual manner, not just between the individual and family members, but across the family system and intergenerationally. It provides relational context and a visual language to bring patterns of relatedness to light.

emotional connection





5. A genogram can assist individuals to explore communication patterns across the family. How do people in the family communicate? How is emotional intensity expressed? Who does the talking? Who is quiet or silent? What is being said? What goes unsaid? Is there a price for speaking about certain things? Who pays the price?

6.  Genograms break down the isolation experienced by many people within their family system. Family problems are seen in a broader context and individuals are not scapegoated. Problems can be expressed as personal problems, inter-relational problems {between certain family members but not others}, family problems {appearing in many relationships across the family system}, intergenerational problems {appearing across the generations} and socio-economic/socio-political problems {problems which are “bigger than” individual family members or the family as a whole, but impact upon the family in significant ways.}

7. Genograms make emotional and behavioural patterns explicit across the family system {intergenerationally}. We have the opportunity to see the “trickle down” effect of many family and relationship problems. However, genograms don’t just illuminate the things that are not working in a family system. Genograms also highlight family strengths, resilience, enduring bonds and positive ways of maintaining connection. Genograms can show us where a family is doing well.  We can begin to see why people may behave as they have done, why we behave the way we have. We see the ripple effect of patterns and themes across the family.

8.  Genograms help clarify options for movement and change. They help identify patterns and themes which are impacting upon individuals and often pinpoint areas for personal development and growth. Sometimes genograms provide great insight about what is likely to change and what is not.

9. Genograms facilitate alternate interpretations and “stories” of family experiences. This is very powerful when individuals are “trapped” in retelling a story over and over, without broader and more compassionate vantage points, for themselves and others.

10. Genograms can show how much we don’t know about our families. A genogram can show missing people and relationships, highlight unknown or untold stories and histories and makes breaks in relatedness and connection more explicit. For people who are estranged, a genogram can be the first place where we really “see” just how many ‘cutoffs” there have been across our family system.

11. Genograms allow for a visual representation of how families “come together” through marriage or other connections. They let us see commonalities and differences between our birth family and our family of choice and allow exploration of how we carry our family of origin experiences into other relationships. This lets us see the strengths and challenges that individuals bring into their relationships together, and express through our own parenting.


I’m sure there are a variety of other benefits to using genograms I haven’t captured in this “off the top of my head” discussion of genograms. However, I think the 11 reasons above make it abundantly clear that genograms have a place in doing family and relational work.

There are certainly people who are resistant to undertaking a genogram and for whom the effort seems unnecessary or just not useful. Some people feel that they “know enough” about their family and are not interested in learning more. Some feel that to undertake a genogram may mean they will need to change their perspective or ways of thinking and feeling about their family. Some people worry that there is an expectation that they will need to understand or “forgive”. Some people think undertaking a genogram is too much work, takes too long, or they simply aren’t interested in their family members. Others quite simply aren’t ready or willing to see the patterns or themes expressed across their family, and by themselves.

The short reason for doing a genogram for me as a therapist, is it provides very clear, concise information that allows me to understand a client’s family in context. It helps me to see what is being focused upon, and what might be being overlooked. It lets me hear what’s being talked about and what isn’t. It shapes the therapeutic experience, and allows for more directed, compassionate and insightful interventions.


Current Family Estrangement Research: Jason Robinson

researchOne of the wonderful benefits of grad school and my own research about family estrangement is it is facilitating networks and links with other researchers who are also studying estrangement.

Jason Robinson is a UK counselling psychologist who recently completed his doctoral thesis:  Negotiating Adult Family Estrangement Through Time: A Grounded Theory of Personal, Interpersonal, Social and Symbolic Process. Jason has graciously allowed me to link to his valuable research and make it available to my readers, free of charge.

For those of you with an academic bent and a desire to know what is happening in family estrangement research, I heartily recommend a read!

Stand Alone

stand aloneLooking for more “how to get through Christmas” resources? There’s a relatively new organization in the UK called Stand Alone. They’ve put together a festive guide/ resource that you might like to have a look at. They’ve also got some great UK based support and a Facebook group. Check ’em out!