Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Make a Family Map (Genogram)
 to See Who You All Are

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member, NSRC Experts Council

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

Updated  05-10-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily.  The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both bioparents, or any of the three or more related stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily.

      This article explains what family "genograms" are, how to make one, and how to use it. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  Family Maps: a Powerful Tool

       A family map or genogram graphically shows all the living and dead people who genetically, emotionally, and legally comprise a family. It may include three or more generations of family members, and shows where each person "fits" in the group.
Family maps can be specially helpful for new stepfamily members who wonder "Who are we all?" Genograms and structural maps are useful visual tools to help understand and manage your related stepfamily homes.

       Here's a partial genogram of a real six-co-parent, three-co-parenting-home stepfamily. There are over 60 people here - about half of all the members (!). Refer to this as you read what follows.

  How to Map Your Family

      Tho this article focuses on stepfamilies, genograms can be just as useful for managing divorcing families and intact biofamilies.


  • Have each of your co-parents draw their own map of at least three generations, including all genetically, financially, or psychologically influential dead people. You’ll discover more if you don’t draw your maps together! Then...

  • Explain the map-making purpose and steps to your minor and grown kids and invite them to draw their own diagrams (alone). Options - suggest young kids use stick figures and/or cartoon faces to do this.

  • You can do this exercise at any time while your complex stepfamily merger progresses over many years. Family maps can be specially useful around major family-change events like weddings, births, graduations, separations and divorces, home-leavings, job or location changes, adoptions, retirements, and deaths.


      You’re goal is to identify all the people who comprise the web of genetic and emotionally-important relationships that currently form your whole multi-home, multi-generational stepfamily. Restated -you seek to discover "Who comprises our whole stepfamily now?"

      Check your initial attitude. Be open-minded, curious, and give yourself permission to believe "there’s no right or wrong" in anyone’s map. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and definitions.

      Expect your members’ maps to disagree - that’s normal. Discovering such values conflicts promotes admitting and resolving important stepfamily identity conflicts, and strengthening your multi-home bonds, loyalties, and nurturance level over time.

      Use a BIG piece of paper - e.g. at least two 8.5" x 11" sheets taped together. These diagrams get very complicated!

      Take your time! Expect evolving your family diagram to take an hour or more - perhaps over several sittings. The more undistracted focus and attention you invest in creating your map, the more you’ll learn.

      Consider journaling about your map-making process. The thoughts and emotions that bloom while you’re making this map and discussing it with others are just as valuable as the diagram. The map itself is not the objective here. The real payoffs are what you all feel and learn as you draw and talk about your stepfamily!

      To avoid having to re/draw or cramp your map, create it in three stages:

  • Living and dead co-parents (bioparents and stepparents), then...

  • minor and grown kids, then...

  • bio and step relatives, and other important people.

Refer to the sample map above as you read about these stages.

    Start With Your Co-parents

       Lay your paper long-side horizontal. Start in the center, about 1/3rd from the bottom edge. Use pencil to lightly sketch in this first three-generational draft. Novice mappers often find that their first diagrams are too cramped, and they have to start over to make more room for everyone.

       Draw a ~3/4" circle (female) or square (male) for you, and a short horizontal solid (if married) or dashed line (if not married) to another square or circle for your current partner. Put your current ages inside the symbols, and next to them note your names.

       Next, on the same level add horizontal solid lines from your symbols to new squares and circles for each of your co-parenting ex mates (your stepkids' other bioparents), whether alive or dead. If you’ve been married several times or had children with several partners, draw in each of your kids' other bioparents. Add their names and current ages.

      If you’re divorced or widowed without biokids, only include your ex if they, or any of their relatives, have "significant" emotional, legal, or financial meaning to you and/or any of your kids now.

      If you divorced, "X" the middle of the line connecting your symbol to your ex's. That doesn't mean you have no relationship - specially of you have biokids.

       If your former partner died, draw an "X" through their symbol. Include her or his age at death.

       If any co-parenting ex mate is seriously dating, cohabiting, or has re/married, add horizontal lines from that ex-mate’s symbol to a circle or square for their current partner. If they’ve re/divorced and their ex  has emotional importance to any child of yours or your partner’s, include that adult’s symbol, and anyone related to them who’s still emotionally important to your child (or to you).

       You’ve just drawn the co-parents’ row of your genogram. Next...

    Add All Living and Dead Kids

       Draw a ~3/4" square or circle for each living biochild, about 2" or 3" below their custodial bioparent’s symbol. If they're adults, Include symbols and connector lines for any past or present mates and any biological, adopted, or foster kids. For the latter, add symbols and dashed connector lines for their bioparents - even if you don't know them. 

       Now connect each biochild’s symbol with a solid vertical or slanted line to the horizontal line between their bioparents.

      Put the kids' current age inside their circle or square, and note their first name, and/or nickname. Add their last name, because steppeople in the same home can have different last names.

       Next, add a symbol under the appropriate bioparent/s for each dead and/or absent (e.g. adopted, aborted, miscarried, stillborn, or killed) child. If such a child is well-grieved by all living genetic relatives, draw their symbol with dashed lines, with a slash or "X." If you feel they’re not well grieved yet, make their symbol-lines solid. Lesson 3 here is about "good grief." 

      If the child is dead, put a slash or "X" through their circle or square, and write in their age at death. If the gender of an aborted child wasn’t known, use a diamond symbol. If you haven’t included a symbol for each child's other bioparent, add one for them now on or near the horizontal co-parenting row.

       Draw separate symbols for both of their birth (bio)parents, even if they aren’t currently known or actively co-parenting. They’re surely of major genetic, ancestral, and psychological  importance to their child, even if the importance is repressed or denied. Double check: look at each adult on your co-parenting row (including each co-parenting ex-mate’s new or recent partner/s), and ask "have we included each known living and dead child of theirs?"

       You’ve just added the "children’s row" to your genogram. Note your feelings and any thoughts and questions, and write them down for later reflection.

 Add Biological and Step Relatives, and Significant Others

       Draw circle/square symbols about 6-8" above your own symbol, representing your biomother and biofather. Connect these symbols with a solid horizontal line if they were married, or a dashed line if they weren’t. If they divorced or separated, note that with an "X" or " // " on this connector line If either is dead, put an "X" through their symbol. 

      Add your bioparent’s ages now or at death, and any nicknames they were/are known by. If either of your bioparents re/married or had a child with another partner, draw symbols and solid or dashed connector-lines for each of those adult partners and children. Add their names and ages to your diagram, and any other info you feel is relevant.

       Below the horizontal connector-line linking your bioparents’ symbols, draw down slanted solid lines to new circles and squares for each of your living and dead genetic siblings. Locate them about 1/3rd of the way between the grandparents’ row and your co-parents row. 

      If these sibs are or were married, add symbols and horizontal connector lines for each of their past and present partners, and slanted lines down to symbols for each living and dead child of theirs. These are your kids’ aunts, uncles, and cousins and your stepkids’ steprelatives. Add full names and nicknames, ages, and any other relevant information like major illnesses, disabilities, addictions, "in college," "state track champ," "Peace Corps," or "in the Army."

       Repeat this multi-level "ancestor" step of your genogram for each of your two or more other co-parents, one at a time. Stay focused on your goal here, for this can feel tedious and overwhelming:

       To guard against overlooking a family member, stand in the imaginary shoes of each co-parent, and ask yourself "Honestly, who do I count as my genetic and psychological family now - even living and dead relatives I ‘hate’ or have ‘no relation’ with?"

       Add names, ages, and any other relevant information. Include any fourth-generation people like great-grandmothers or great-uncles, of high 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 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 has a significant impact on each adult and child in your multi-generational stepfamily is included now, darken the lines of all symbols and connector lines with a pen or soft pencil. Your stepfamily map is done.


           As a finishing touch, use different colored pens or markers to circle, asterisk, or note:

  • adults and kids you feel have significant false-self wounds;

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

  • stepfamily members whom you don't accept but others do (or vice versa);

  • adults and/or kids who aren’t accepted by other stepfamily members;

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

  • kids and adults who don’t want to be included in your stepfamily now;

  • members who deny or don’t realize that you all form a normal multi-home, multi-generational stepfamily now;

  • adults and kids who may not have fully mourned the losses (broken bonds) from prior family reorganization from divorces 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; and …

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

  • (add your own item/s)

      Using Your Genogram

           Family maps can promote awareness and useful discussions about...

"Who comprises our family now?"

"What does the term 'family' mean to me/us now?"

"What are the key differences between our stepfamily map and our biofamily maps? What do those differences mean to us?" Avoid manipulating or demanding family members to include or exclude people, and be alert for significant values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles.

"How likely is it that we all will ever feel like a unified multi-home stepfamily?"

"What would have to happen to promote that? Who "should" make that happen?"

"What if that never happens?"

"Do our members disagree significantly on who belongs to our stepfamily? If so, how does that affect me/ you/us?"

"What - specifically - do I need to learn from and/or tell my partner now about what this stepfamily map means?"

"Is there any child or adult stepfamily member I feel uneasy about showing this map to, or asking to draw their own? Am I reluctant to compare and discuss our genograms with anyone? Is my partner?

"How did I feel creating this genogram? How did each other co-creator? What does that mean?"

          Option: use your map as input for discussing your stepfamily identity.

      Feedback please - take this anonymous 1-question poll.

reminder.gif (128 bytes) Refocus on the big picture - studying, discussing, and applying Lessons 1 thru 7 together.


      This article describes how to make and use a powerful graphic tool to help adults understand and manage a complex multi-home divorcing-family or stepfamily. It can be specially useful in promoting constructive discussion among family members who are visual learners. Genograms or family maps can also help members...

  • clarify who belongs to their family, and spot and resolve significant conflicts over this;

  • spot and resolve significant family-identity confusions or conflicts;

  • effectively manage their complex merger of several multi-generational biofamilies over time;

  • make the best use of any professional human-service helpers you hire.

      Making and discussing a family genogram is best done by two or more related co-parents (a) after marital separation; and (b) during serious pre-commitment courtship. Genograms are also useful for anyone who wants to understand their childhood and/or current family better.

       An excellent resource for diagramming your family tree is GenoPro - a software tool and instructive Web site. Also note another powerful visual tool - family structural maps.

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

  Keep working on Lesson 7!

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