Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

How to Make a
Family Map (Genogram)

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/fam/geno.htm

Updated  03-14-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-5 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance family. It shows you how to make a visual diagram of who comprises your family and how they relate to each other. Mapping your family can help you (a) spot problems you might not otherwise identify, and (b) clarify your family's membership and identity.

      If you're in a stepfamily (or may be), go here.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it.    

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • these Q&A items on families,

  • family-structure maps and family trees, and...

  •  this intro to family systems.

  About Family Maps

       A family map or genogram shows all the living and dead people who genetically, emotionally, and legally comprise a family. It may span three or more generations of relatives, several states, provinces, or continents, and shows how each person "fits" in the group (how they're related).

      With extra notations and symbols, these maps can show family alliances, conflicts, relationship cutoffs, bonding strengths, and other important factors that help describe a family’s structure and dynamics. Genograms can be specially helpful for new family members and kids who wonder "Who are we all now?" Genograms and structural maps are useful visual tools to help understand and manage your multi-generational family homes.

       To start, view this sample map. Refer to it as you read the suggestions below. 

  How to Map Your Family

       If these standard symbols don’t fit for you, invent your own!

Use ~3/4" circles for females, and squares for males. Crosshatch or color these for extra-important people (important to whom?). Use dashed circles and squares, or slashed or "X’d" symbols, to represent dead, missing, or psychologically-detached people. Option: put the person's current age on the circle or square.

Horizontal solid lines show legal marriages, and dashed lines show committed unmarried primary relationships and important friendships, dependencies, hero/ines, and supporters. A horizontal line with a ----//---- or ----X---- can indicate a psychological or legal divorce;

Vertical or slanted solid lines show genetic connections. Dashed slanted lines can show adoptions, foster parents, or other special adult-child relationships. Option - use double, triple, or colored lines to indicate the importance or relative strength of the bond between two people.

Zigzag, double, or wavy lines can symbolize strong emotional, legal, financial, or other kinds of current relationship connections, including lust, grief, anger, fear, and "hatred." If helpful, add symbols like "+" and "-" to show friendship, love, hostility, and/or fear;

Include names, dates, pets, extra-important current friends, sponsors, or authorities, major illnesses and disabilities, addictions, and any other symbolic or text information that adds clarity and meaning to your map.

           Now you have some raw materials. On the top half of a blank page, lightly pencil in symbols for...

  • your parents and each of their living and dead children, including stillbirths, adoptions, abortions, and foster kids; then add symbols for...

  • your and your siblings' current and ex mates, and any living and dead children (your parents' grandkids); then add...

  • ancestors, pets, special friends, mentors, and child-caretakers, and a Higher Power (if any) who significantly affect any member/s of your family now..

      Leave as much white space as you can for notes and other information.

      Finally, add names, ages, and any other relevant information. Include any fourth-generation people like great-grandmothers or great-uncles, of high current emotional significance to any of your co-parents or minor or grown children, whether living or dead. They count!

      Final check: one at a time, slip into the skin, mind, and heart of each minor and grown child. Ask "Is everyone I have strong ( + and - ) feelings about on this map now?" If any adults or kids are missing to any child - even if you don’t feel they belong - add symbols and connector lines for them now.

      If you’re satisfied that everyone who is an emotionally, genetically, and legally significant member of your family is included now, darken the lines of all symbols and connector lines with a pen or soft pencil. The map of your family is now done.

      Pause, breathe, and note your emotions and "inner voices." Try to be objective about your map, as though you were a reporter or scientist. Personal and family awarenesses and insights are the real harvest of this useful project.


      Make your genogram a family resource! Draw your family tree, and a structural map of each home comprising your family. Then use the maps, this family-trait inventory, and colored pens or markers to circle, asterisk, or note...   

  • who leads (a) each member's home and (b) this whole multi-home, multi-generational family now.

  • grandparents' ethnic backgrounds - home countries, immigration data and reasons, etc

  • ancestral occupations and education levels;

  • unusual events or achievements (e.g. "Explored Africa on foot at age 17.")

  • adults and kids you feel have significant psychological wounds;  ("GWC")

  • the nurturance level of each home in your extended family (Low > Moderate > High)

  • family members who get the most and least attention from other members;

  • adults and/or kids who have the most and least influence on how the family functions.

  • members who have been given the family role of "black sheep" or "scapegoat."

  • strong antagonisms (use zigzag lines "wwww" to connect their symbols) or favoritisms and alliances (use double-parallel  ======  connector lines) between pairs of members;

  • adults and kids who may not have fully mourned major losses (broken bonds) - e.g. from divorces,  geographic moves, and/or deaths;

  • major loyalty conflicts and/or relationship triangles between three or more members

  • any adults or kids whom you feel are currently addicted;

  • use your genogram to illustrate and discuss how the [wounds + unawareness] cycle has passed down - and affected - your generations.

  • review, update, and discuss your genogram annually;

  • use your genogram as a reference when you make or amend your family mission statement;

  • use your genogram with any professionals you hire to assist with significant family problems;

      For more options and perspective, search the Web on "Genograms."

  Feedback please - take this anonymous 1-question poll.


      This Lesson-5 article introduces a useful visual tool to help you understand and manage your family - a family diagram or "genogram." The article shows how to "map" a family, and suggests possible ways to use the map. A related visual tool is a family structural map.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with?  Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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