Quick summary – When visiting certain therapists (trained in family therapy) you might have the opportunity to do a genogram to shed some light on some of the themes or patterns in your multi-generational family – your family tree. A genogram typically lists 3 to 4 generations of your family (ex. your children, their siblings and their cousins; you, your siblings and your cousins; your parents and their sibling) and uses a combination of shapes and lines to visually symbolize how all the people are connected. A Genogram can be used for many different purposes – I enjoy helping clients to look for commonality to reduce self-blame and to look for instances in which another family member resolved an issue similar to the client’s presenting concern.
Example of a genogram (higher = older generation),(square = male and circle = female)(I would have names and ages next to each person’s symbol)
Families have rituals, customs, behaviors and beliefs that are passed on from generation to generation – Often people are unaware that they are making choices based on fairly set family values – “what influenced you to parent as you do?” – client answers “I don’t know… that is the way that my parents did it I guess,” (or – “I didn’t want to parent like my parents did.”) Looking at a family tree (genogram) can give you insight into why you make some of the choices that you make.
Reducing Blame – Often clients (especially parents) will come to a family therapy session feeling really awful as they blame themselves for the difficulties that someone in their family is facing. As a therapist I will often ask clients to point out where this problem exists in other areas of the family to help the client to see that the problem is related to the family as a whole and not a solely to a set individual. (As strength-based therapist I tend to believe that finding fault is less beneficial than finding strengths and solutions).
- The problem could have a biological explanation, which is easier to identify if you can see that many people in a family have similar symptoms. (ex. “perhaps he is irritable do in part to his digestive issues that I see many men in you family deal with.”)
- The problem could be based on a family ritual that started 80+ years ago (ex. the family tends to drink alcohol when there are financial problems – this ritual started with the clients grandfather during the depression.)
- Genograms can offer a reasonable explanation for a behavior that a client is not proud of. Ex. If a client is blaming himself or herself for emotionally shutting off to their partner it can be helpful for them to identify where in the family that behavior also exists, and why that behavior is adaptable, which will help in the process of finding a replacement for the behavior.
- This is not about transferring blame – chances are you could probably trace many issues for multiple generations. I will talk about trauma in a future blog, but in short it is possible that a problem facing a client today is in some way related to a trauma in the family that happened 100+ years ago. (Ex. If your great grandfather was held in a prisoner camp before he came home to father your grandfather, this experience might affect the way males emotionally engages their children in your family for multiple generations. Ultimately in this example the only thing to blame is an abstraction, being – a human’s natural reaction to violence and oppression)
Solutions – My absolute favorite set of questions concerning a genogram are-
– “Who else in your family went through what you are going through in their own way?” I will then use a colored pen to mark all the people in the client’s family who have experienced a similar concern.
I then get a different color pen and ask
– “Out of the people that have experienced a concern like yours, tell me the people that you believe were able to attain a solution that you find agreeable?” (I will name the concern specifically –ex. problems with the legal system).
After all the people are marked I will ask the client or clients to talk specifically about a family member that overcame their difficulty.
– “Tell me about this person; how were they able to resolve or overcome this difficulty?”
– “What is it about this person that you admire or what are their strengths?”
– “In what ways are you similar to this person?”
-“Lets talk about how this family member’s solution might work for you and what changes you would have to make to the solution to meet your specific needs.”
This process has three purposes – it reduces blame, it isolates strengths and solutions that already exist, and it creates a sense of hope (as someone else already succeeded).
“We are what we eat and we are our family” – me
Again I focused this blog on reducing blame and finding solutions, future blogs will cover all the other benefits of the genogram experience. (Often a client will simply look at their genogram and the image will bring about revelations that the therapist could not have anticipated – and sometimes simply naming everyone in the family raises subjects that need to be worked through in therapy – ex. the uncle you admired that passed away too soon.)