When I was first introduced to family therapy in graduate school, I immediately fell in love with the visual language of genograms. Since making this genogram chart at that time, this graphic has become one of my most shared sketchnotes across multiple platforms. Scroll to the bottom of this post to purchase a printable PDF of this genogram key updated for 2020, plus flashcards for students currently learning this visual vocabulary!
What is a Genogram?
Genograms are like a family tree, except instead of focusing on genealogy, genograms focus on relationships, behaviors, and the transmission of patterns through family trees. Because relationship patterns, behaviors, health problems, and addictions are at least partially shaped by our genes and relational environment, genograms are a valuable tool in psychology and healthcare. Although they are most popular in family therapy, they can also be used by healthcare providers, in substance abuse treatment, and in individual therapy. Genograms can help individuals visualize the patterns of their families of origin and learn new things about themselves and their family.
One thing I love about genograms is that a genogram can be very flexible. While there are some standard symbols – many illustrated in this chart – genograms can be adapted in countless ways. Genograms can be developed for an individual specifically to track addictions, cancers, emotional fusions, estrangements, psychiatric disorders, and more. It can even be used to track seemingly random events through generations, like religious devotion, miscarriages, sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, or just about any other human experience.
In America we are especially individualistic and often forget how influenced we are both explicitly and implicitly by our ancestors. (The field of intergenerational trauma seeks to understand these links in both psychology and genealogy.) The genogram is a helpful tool to help us notice patterns and, once aware, we can become empowered to make more informed decisions about our own behaviors.
New for 2021:
The download of this genogram key now includes an additional page – for the same low price. The new page includes a legend of line patterns that can be used to visually represent the emotional tone of connections.
Why I Love Genograms
I think talk-therapy has incredible value, but for visual thinkers, visual aids help make important connections. Seeing something tangible that has only been discussed in the intangible can bring clarity for many individuals. While art therapy offers a more visual approach, art therapy can be off-putting to individuals who don’t identify as artists. Genograms can serve as a bridge between the seen and unseen, accessible to artists and non-artists alike.
The visual language of Genograms concisely represents the complexity of relationships and intergenerationally transmitted issues. If you are interested in learning more about genograms, check out Genograms: Assessment and Interventions (by Monica McGoldrick, Randy Gerson Ph.D., and Sueli Petry Ph.D.)
Learning/memorizing genogram symbols is important – it gives you vocabulary that weaves together into a meaningful language, but once you’ve learned the language, improvise and adapt to your client or patient’s needs.
In the opinion of this author, the ethical use of genograms integrates an individual’s own self-representations and symbolic identifications as the basis. Centering client experience and self-identification helps this tool empower and spark growth rather than label and pathologize. Learning/memorizing symbols is important – it gives you vocabulary that weaves together into a meaningful language, but once you’ve learned the language, improvise and adapt to your client or patient’s needs.
This feels especially poignant around gender and sexual identity symbols: which the standard symbols (included in the key) and expanded symbols (included in the flashcards) still don’t come close to capturing fully. Ask your client how they would like to be represented, and work collaboratively. In art or play-based genogram interventions, symbols can even be replaced with colors, toys, stickers, or figures.
Download My Genogram Resources
This sketchnote version of a genogram symbol key is now available via the links below.