How to build a genogram: 14 steps (with pictures)

How to build a genogram: 14 steps (with pictures)
How to build a genogram: 14 steps (with pictures)

A genogram is a graphic representation of the links existing between individuals over several generations. In addition to these links, are indicated, in the form of symbols, events and various information (pathologies, divorces…). It looks strangely like a family tree, but in more detail. Some psychotherapists use them to treat their patients with certain disorders or illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, cancer or a genetic disease. To draw up a genogram, you will have to appeal to your memory, to writings, but also to question the members of your family. It is only after this intelligence gathering that you will be able to draw up your genogram, that of your family in fact.


Part 1 of 3: Deciding what to get out of a genogram

Make a Genogram Step 1

Step 1. Know why you want to build your genogram

You can't build a genogram without a preconceived idea. You also have to choose who you will share this work with, who you will show your genogram to. If it contains special or sensitive information, it may not be visible to everyone. You need to think about this before or during your work.

  • Genograms can be centered on a family characteristic, such as mental illness, substance use or the frequency of a condition.
  • Genograms can be of great help to some practitioners who would like some explanatory material for a condition that you (or another family member) may be carrying.
Make a Genogram Step 2

Step 2. Also know what you want to know

Your psychotherapist asked you to do it, you do it for yourself no matter what, what matters now is what information you plan to put in your genogram, because you can't put everything.

  • Genograms are family trees of a certain type, each leaf of which will be a member of the family. The big difference is that you will include information that is sometimes confidential, highlighting certain links, a bit like Émile Zola did for the Rougon-Macquart.
  • Thus, with a genogram, we can learn who is married to whom, who has divorced or has become widowed, etc. He can give the first names and dates of the children, but also the links, near or far, between all these people. The approach is often psychological, emotional or medical.
  • Concentrate on certain specific information. For example, you may only be interested in the problem of addiction, family depression, or people who have had cancer. You can also try to find out why your mother and her mother are no longer talking to each other. All the information you find can be put on the genogram.
Make a Genogram Step 3

Step 3. Quickly determine the number of generations to study

By determining it, you will know who to contact, if they are still alive, to complete your diagram and if the task is feasible according to their ages and places of residence.

  • Fortunately, nowadays, it is full of means (email, Skype, etc.) which allow people to be contacted remotely without having to travel.
  • To make it easier for you, it is good that you decide in advance which ascendants to which you want to ascend. Will you start with your grandparents or your great-grandparents? Once the genogram is structured, you will know who to contact.
Make a Genogram Step 4

Step 4. Prepare your questions

You will ask them to family members and you will respond to them as well. Orient your questions according to what you want to explain or understand. The answers will be written on the genogram. Prepare specific and relevant questions.

  • Start, for example with your grandmother, enter her maiden name, her husband (s), the date and cause of her death, her origins …
  • Know the number of children your maternal grandparents had.
  • Find out if a particular member was taking medication or using drugs.
  • Find out if a particular member had a mental illness or a particular pathology.

Part 2 of 3: Building a Family History

Make a Genogram Step 5

Step 1. Write down what you already know from memory

Everyone in a family knows something about their family. By digging into your memories, you should already have some information about your family.

Look at all the questions you have prepared and see if you can answer any of them

Make a Genogram Step 6

Step 2. Interview family members

After you've answered some questions, it's time to ask the rest of the family. Find the relationships between these members and know the important events that may have taken place. Note everything carefully.

  • You will certainly ask questions that seem essential to you, but over the course of the answers, it always happens that other information, that you did not suspect, comes to the surface.
  • Also, don't forget that there is information, kept secret, that is difficult for some people to tell.
  • Expect to hear plenty of stories. Of course, they can be changed, but sometimes they contain useful information. Ask questions broad enough to prompt the other person to continue. Pay close attention to the smallest detail and give the person confidence.
Make a Genogram Step 7

Step 3. Look elsewhere for answers

If you have any, peel the documents (albums, letters…) concerning the family. Also do some research on the Internet, you never know what you can find. Know that there are things that are always difficult to bring to light.

  • In these written or digital sources, you will find information that you already have and you can learn more.
  • You have to act a bit like a reporter who cross-tabulates specific information.
Make a Genogram Step 8

Step 4. Remember your own story

Who is better placed than you to feed your genogram with information about you? In a way, you are kind of the basis of the genogram.

  • Retrieve the information from your own medical file.
  • So, if you take such medicine regularly, you should provide this information to see if anyone in your family is already taking it to treat the same condition.
Make a Genogram Step 9

Step 5. Learn more about Family Relationships

A genogram should show the relationships that exist between the different members of the family. Find all the unions in the family in great detail if possible. Do the same with separations, divorces, widowhoods …

  • Note all those who have been married, divorced, have lived in cohabitation, have entered into a civil partnership.
  • Note all widowhoods and separations of any kind.
  • If you make a genogram, you have a goal. Based on this observation, you will certainly be led to ask more in-depth questions, the answers of which may be embarrassing or painful. You may learn that such and such a person has a rather dissolute life or that such other is in an unwanted relationship.
  • Asking these kinds of questions is always a delicate exercise: always be diplomatic and spot any trace of trouble.
Make a Genogram Step 10

Step 6. Find emotional connections

Now that everyone is on the genogram, it remains to indicate the nature and intensity of the emotional or psychological links that exist or have existed between them. Discovering or rediscovering these kinds of links will perhaps allow you to draw up profiles or psychological factors specific to your family.

  • You may learn that there are marriages of love, but also of reason, that some members adore each other while others sulk or tear each other apart.
  • In the course of your research, you may find some gloomy facts, such as abuse, mental torture. Differentiate between what is physical and what is mental.

Part 3 of 3: Plotting a genogram

Make a Genogram Step 11

Step 1. Draw your genogram

You can do this either by hand on a drawing sheet or use models found on the Internet. There is also software specially designed for establishing genograms.

Make a Genogram Step 12

Step 2. Use standard symbols

A genogram is built with precise symbols. The members of the family are represented there, as well as their information and the links which unite them. You will transform all the information collected into symbols. The genogram can be done by hand or with word processing or drawing software, you will then use the geometric figures available.

  • Men will be designated by an empty square. If he has been or is married, he will be indicated to the left of the union symbol.
  • Women will be designated by an empty circle. If she was or is married, she will be shown to the right of the union symbol.
  • A horizontal line indicates a union between two people. If it is broken by two slanting lines, the union has ended.
  • The children of a couple are below the bottom line and are listed by date of birth, with the oldest on the left and the youngest on the right.
  • There are other symbols to designate such or such event, such as pregnancy, miscarriage, illness, death … Pets can, if any, be represented by diamonds.
Make a Genogram Step 13

Step 3. Logically organize your tree

In general, we always start by putting the oldest people at the top of the graph. Depending on the case, you will put your grandparents or even your great-grandfathers on top. A genogram can be used to establish the diversity of family relationships, such as pathological relationships.

  • A genogram can contain symbols that represent conflicts, similarities, alienation, etc. Emotional relationships will be represented by other specific symbols, which will allow the graphic to remain readable.
  • Still other symbols are reserved for very sensitive information, such as sexual abuse or disabilities.
Make a Genogram Step 14

Step 4. Find typical profiles

Once the genogram has been duly completed, see if one or more typical profiles can be identified. Without graphics, it would have been impossible to realize that in the family there were people predisposed to such and such a disease or such behavior.

  • Don't jump to conclusions. Data is one thing; drawing general conclusions about the existence of a hereditary disease, physical or mental in the family is another. It would be wise, if you are thinking of telling someone else, to go through a healthcare professional.
  • When reading your genogram, avoid making too hasty hypotheses, or judging this or that member of the family. This graph should also not be used to settle scores. If you discover an aunt who keeps changing professions or a cousin keeps stealing from other's girlfriends, the genogram should not be used to tell these people what they would do well to do a psychoanalysis. You should not set yourself up as the moral judge of the whole family: a genogram is not made for that. Take all the necessary precautions and, above all, leave it to specialists, such as psychologists: the truth is not always as simple as you think you perceive it to be.
  • If you are going to write your family history, it is certain that your genogram, if done right, can help you. You can, for example, explain why the family left their area, perhaps understand the origin of problems between certain members of the family or learn about the existence of a member not officially known.


  • Don't leave your genogram lying around on the corner of the table. Once finished, it contains information that can be embarrassing, even traumatic, for whoever decodes it.
  • If you have to show it to people outside the family, it is better to prepare an anonymous or incomplete genogram.
  • Genograms can also be used for plant or animal species, in order to follow mutations, make crosses, etc.
  • Building a genogram turns out to be a great solar exercise. Students or high school students can, for example, take a famous character and construct his genogram using books or the Internet. The construction of the genogram and its interpretation will allow the student to develop certain skills. However, this work will have to be what it should be, that is to say a simple presentation of this kind of graphic without claiming to be exhaustive or too daring interpretations.
  • Genograms, originally designed by Monica McGoldrick, are now used in some clinical settings.

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