Lesson 5 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance family

Use Structural Maps to
Manage Your Family Well

Basic Premises and Examples

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/map.htm

Updated  09-22-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-5 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance family. The article introduces a powerful tool for understanding how your family is "built" - "structural mapping." It may look complicated, but if you experiment with it, you'll find that it's easy to use.

      The article defines family structure, summarizes some basic premises, shows you how to map the structure of any family, and proposes baseline 'maps" of healthy biological families.. A related article shows how to map typical multi-home stepfamily structures.

      This mapping tool can help you answer questions like...

"Who has the power in our home and family, including dead people and non-relatives?"

"Who's in charge of each of our homes?"

"Who is aligned and who is conflicted?"

"Is anyone excluded from full family membership? By Whom? Why?"

"Do we have major communication blocks in and between our several homes?"

"How does our family structure react to crises, major conflicts, and membership changes?

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

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

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • these Q&A items on families

  • these traits of a high-nurturance family

  • how to make and use a family genogram

  About Family Structure

      Here, a family means a group of people with genetic, legal, and social bonds who depend on each other for inclusion, identity, companionship, support, procreation, security and stability. This can include dead and distant relatives, special friends and professional consultants, a Higher Power, neighbors, teachers, coaches, baby sitters, and perhaps influential mentors and media figures.

      Structure describes how something is built, like a house, novel, sailboat, or government. Structures range from stable to unstable and effective to flawed, depending on what they're designed to do. Family structure refers to:

  • Who's included and excluded from the family;

  • Who's in charge of each home or group of related homes, if anyone. Whose needs and behaviors cause the main decisions in calm and troubled times?

  • Relationship bonds and boundaries, or lack of them;

  • The roles and rules that govern how members' needs get met - or don't;

  • Family-member alliances and antagonisms; and ...

  • Communication blocks in and between people and homes.

      Structural mapping is a visual tool. It can help you identify and validate what's healthy about your family, and illuminate structural problems that lower your nurturance level. The structural mapping scheme outlined here uses  some basic ideas about family functioning. See if you agree with each of these beliefs, and add your own:


      1)  A family's core purpose is to fill all adults' and children's needs. A common key need is for a safe haven, where every member feels consistently accepted, valued, respected, supported, and encouraged to develop and use their unique talents.

      Families that don't fill all their members' key needs consistently can be called low nurturance or dysfunctional. The more of these factors that exist, the higher the nurturance level. Levels vary over time with structural and environmental changes.

      2) The main factors determining a home's or a family’s nurturance level are...

  • whether the resident adults are psychologically wounded or not, and...

  • whether they're self and mutually aware and knowledgeable;

  • how healthy the family's grieving policy is; and...

  • whether the adults are motivated and able to communicate and problem-solve effectively.

      From my clinical experience since 1979, I believe many or most typical adults have survived early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma), and have inherited significant psychological wounds. Few people - including family-life professionals - are aware of this, and/or they don't know what it means or what to do about it.

      Premise 3) All families experience local or chronic stress over surface issues like these:

  • family membership (inclusion and exclusion)

  • boundaries (missing, weak, or rigid; violations; and conflicts)

  • roles (unclear, unstable, inappropriate, and/or conflicting),

  • relationship rules and consequences (unclear, conflicting, inconsistent, and appropriate or not);  

  • adapting to and stabilizing after systemic and environmental changes.

      Premise 4) The key relationship in a family that includes minor kids should be between mates, vs. an adult and a child or other adults (like grandparent-parent) or two ex mates. In resolving family problems, mates should consistently put their integrities and wholistic health first, their relationship second, and all else third - except in emergencies.

      5)  Family members (like you) can proactively improve their family's structure and system by taking and applying this online self-improvement course.

      Notice your reaction to these premises. If you don't agree with them, what do you believe?

      To use this visual tool, your family adults need some...

  Structural-mapping Symbols

      Family-structural maps use symbols to show how members relate to each other. In this article, I’ll use the generic letters below. You can use these letters, your family-members’ names or initials, cartoon figures, faces, or any other meaningful symbols.

      Be creative: doing these maps can be fun, as well as instructive! Consider using colored markers or pens, too - whatever makes the diagrams clearer for everyone. Try to see the big picture and theme, to minimize getting boggled by all these symbols. Once you try them, they're surprisingly easy...

Map Symbol

Stands for current nuclear-family member:

P, M , F, ...

Living Parent, Mother, and Father


Dead Parent, Mother, Father

MA  FA     MFW

Addicted or psychologically-wounded Mother or Father

C1 , C2 ,    T1 , T2  

Dependent (minor) Children and Teens

[P], [M] or [S];

A [dead] or [absent] and still psychologically-important Parent, Mother, or Sibling ... (e.g. an aborted, stillborn, or grown child).


Conflicted Parent and Child

[HP], {God}, [Allah]

The Higher Power/s that significantly influence one or more family members, if any.

R1 , GM, ...

Key Relative "1" or a powerful Grandmother, or ...

Fr1 , or Pr, or ...

Important Friend "1", or Professional person (priest, counselor, ...)

(P or (C

An excluded or rejected Parent or Child.

P1 || P

Two parents with ineffective verbal communications.

(P+C1 ) or  (C1+C2)

Psychologically over-involved (enmeshed or codependent) Parent and Child "1", or enmeshed Children "1" and "2."




" _  _  _  _  _"

Family responsibility lines. Put people above the line who have the most consistent impact in directing current household residents’ feelings, actions, and attention. Ideally, all resident parents would be always above the line and minor kids below.

       Dashed responsibility lines signify generally open adult-child communications. A solid line means communications are blocked (people above and below the line don’t disclose honestly, hear well, or problem-solve effectively).



One-way or mutually-hostile parental relationships, with blocked (ineffective) communications.

CP1 || CP2

Two Co-Parents with blocked verbal communications.

      Option: use small encircled or colored letters or subscripts to designate important individual or dyad dynamics like these:

A = addiction

VC = values conflict

$C = money conflict

M = in the military

PC = parenting conflict

PA = physical abuse

SX = sexual problem

PR = pregnant

T = in therapy

X = no life purpose

D =  depressed

G =grieving

UG = unfinished grief

H  = homeless

J = in jail

BC = boundary conflict

EA = emotional abuse

F = fanaticism

I = socially isolated

S = sick or disabled

      Adding map symbols like these can reveal patterns of stress in and among family members and homes. This allows quickly identifying where to focus energy to improve your family's nurturance level (function).

      Now let's see how to use these (or similar) symbols in...

Sample Family-Structure Maps

      These examples are based on the premises above. Recall: "family structure" refers to home and family membership, leadership, roles (responsibilities), boundaries, and communications. We’ll start with high-nurturance (functional) family map, and then show some of the many kinds of dysfunctional (low nurturance) biofamily structures.

      Again: the purpose of these maps is to show simply and concisely whether a given home or multi-home nuclear family is organized in a healthy way or not. Use them to help discuss and improve your family's nurturance level, not to expose, attack, or ridicule any members.

1) Baseline: A high-nurturance, intact
nuclear bio(logical)-family structure

M  F
- - - - - -
C   C

Religious Mother and Father are co-equally in charge of their home ("above the line"), and not enmeshed or addicted. Communication is open between all adults and minor kids. Family roles (responsibilities) are clear to everyone. Kids are encouraged to be kids, vs. little adults. There are no interfering relatives or other people, and no one is demoted below the line, excluded, exalted above the line, absent, enmeshed, or addicted. Household emotional boundaries (the dashed box) are open, so friends, kin, and ideas freely enter and leave, yet there are clear limits.

2) Baseline: A High-nurturance, Intact Extended-biofamily Structure

 GF1 [GM1]


M  F
- - - - - -
C   C


GF2  GM2


A2  U2
- - - - - -
C   C  C

      This is a four-home 13-member multi-generational ("extended") biological family system. It includes a married couple with two minor kids, three living grandparents, one dead and influential grandmother, and an aunt and uncle in charge of their three minor kids, all living in four separate homes. Grandfather "2" is the most powerful adult in the extended family, and influences most major decisions. No one is enmeshed, excluded, addicted, wounded, or dubbed a "black sheep."

      Each home affects the others and is a subsystem of the whole system. Each home has its own structure. Their are no addicts, wounded adults, or major conflicts in any homes. All four homes have roles and rules that determine how members act toward each other in normal and special times. God does not have a major influence on this extended family, nor do any non-members. In real life, most extended-family maps  like these are more complex (and more dysfunctional).

3) Typical Low-nurturance Two-parent Biofamily Structures

- - - - - - -
C ... C

M //
    - - - - - (F


- - - - - - - -
C...C  M

F || M
- - - - -

1) Dominant Mom, blocked parental communications

2) Detached or absent Father, blocked parental communications

3) Blocked parent - child communications; Parents enmeshed

4) Child co- controlling the home, Mom ineffective ("below the line")

5) Mom's dead mother controls the home; parents can’t talk; kids anxious


M ) - - - - (F
C ... C

F) - - - - - - - -       C ... C  M

F || (C+M)
- - - - - - - - - -
C ... C

(U + + + + M) [F]
C ... C

6) Two unbonded  parents; teen controls the home; No family boundaries

7) Overwhelmed mom, detached dad, Aunt in charge; Rigid (closed) household boundaries

8) Enmeshed Mom and controlling child; no parental teamwork or problem solving

9) Enmeshed Mom and (non-resident) Uncle; Biofather dead but still key; kids feel unheard


C  F  C
M  C

10) Regressed or overwhelmed Parents. Nobody is consistently in charge of the home (no adult-child responsibility line): All family members are isolated from outsiders (solid border).



11) Similar, including a resident Relative; Everyone is enmeshed and chaotic: no effective personal boundaries, and no clear family roles. Mates have no private time or space. Adults are kids' buddies, not parents.

      With some imagination, you can see that these are only a few of the many biofamily structures possible! How would you map the family that you grew up in? Over time, it probably had several key structures. Family structures change each time someone is born, dies (including abortions and stillbirths), leaves home, reaches puberty, moves back home, becomes seriously ill or injured, gets married, and so on.

4) Typical Low-Nurturance Two-home
 Separated or Divorcing Family Structure

      Separation and legal (vs. psychological) divorce restructure a biological family. The family system now includes the people, roles, rules, coalitions, communication, and boundaries in each of two related household systems. Early in a divorce process, key relatives, friends, supporters, and professionals (like counselors, mediators, and attorneys) affect the family's functioning, and should be included in a structural map. Divorce always indicates wounded, unaware adults and a low-nurturance family system.

- - - - - -
C ... C



Mom has legal and physical custody, and controls her home (is above the line). Arrows show regular child visitation with their addicted Father, who is in charge of his home when the kids come to stay; but communications with his kids are blocked (solid line). Ongoing two-way hostility, poor communications, and conflicts between bioparents, with the kids caught in the middle. No significantly intrusive or dependent relatives

      There are many variations of this two-home divorcing biofamily, considering who’s in charge in each home; the numbers, ages, and "parentification" of older kids (i.e. being above the parental responsibility line); the availability and involvement of nurturing kin; and how the "sending" home restructures if some of the kids go visit, but some stay. The custodial bioparent is often overwhelmed, and may "promote" an older child above the line to co-control the home. Or s/he may hire day-care or live-in help (who should be included in the structural map).

      If you divorced, what did (or does) your two-home biofamily structure look like? Did (does) it have several structures? Who was in charge of each home when the kids were there?


      This Lesson-5 article defines "family" and "family structure," and offers several basic premises about families. It shows typical family-mapping symbols, and illustrates how to diagram (map) the structure of high-nurturance  (functional) and low-nurturance biofamilies.

       Coupled with family-systems knowledge, structural mapping is a tool that can help healthy, informed adult members visualize and discuss how their nuclear or extended family is "built" - and identify and solve structural problems. 

      If you want to map a multi-home nuclear stepfamily, see this article.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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