top of page

7 Important Uses of the Genogram | Plus Templates

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Learn how a genogram can help you understand your family relationships and how they impact you and your future.

This infographic shows a family and how genogram symbols can help explain the emotional dynamics and relationships between them.

Article Highlights:


Unless you’ve already been to a fair amount of therapy, you may not have thought much about your family dynamics. Do you struggle with drinking because one of your parents was an alcoholic? Do you have low self-esteem because your family favored your sibling?

One of the best ways to understand your family dynamics is visually. A genogram is a visual depiction, similar to a family tree, that shows the types of emotional relationships between family members.

To create a genogram you start with the shell of a traditional family tree. Grandparents from each side are at the top, branching down into your parents, you, your siblings, and your children. From there you add symbols and notes about types of relationships and interactions in your family.

For example, if you are distant from your sister, you can use a dotted line between you to show that. If a grandparent was physically abusive of their child, a zig-zag line with an arrow is used.

There are dozens of symbols to represent positive relationships, controlling ones, secret ones, and much more. It doesn’t really matter if you use the “correct” symbols as long as you know what they mean to you. However, examples of symbols and a finished genogram are included with this article.

Here are some important and helpful ways to use the genogram, in therapy and beyond.

1. Make key family connections

Creating a genogram isn’t about the final product–it’s about the process itself. Often therapists will ask clients to create a genogram, especially if your therapist is a clinical social worker (they might be called an MSW or LCSW or something similar).

That’s because therapists with a social work background are all about family systems, environments, and dynamics. Most social work theories, or ideas, have to do with the interactions between families, groups, and communities.

When one person changes in the family, it can affect the whole family system. Or in other words, how the family interacts and responds to each other.

For example, if your mother always picks a fight with you and you stop arguing back then it will definitely shake things up! It could lead to all kinds of unexpected results.

On the flipside, it can be difficult for someone to keep up long-term change when they are in an environment that supports the same habits.

If you are trying to give up drinking, for example, it will be very hard to do if everyone in your house drinks most nights. That’s where it’s important to better understand your family dynamics, and a genogram is a great tool to do so.

2. Process your emotions

If you haven’t thought much about your family interactions, creating a genogram might be an eye-opening experience. This could bring up difficult emotions, but hopefully in a good way. Sometimes your feelings are under the surface, and you’ve never had a chance to work through them.

Here’s another scenario. If a parent was neglectful throughout your childhood it might still be affecting how you care for yourself or how you interact with others. Once you realize that, there might be a need to grieve or talk through your experiences with a therapist. And if you’re able to work through those feelings it can be a very healing experience.

3. Identify areas for change

If you are examining your current family dynamics, then a genogram can open up areas for change. For example, you might realize that you are enabling a family member’s unhealthy behaviors without realizing it.

If you’re open to looking at it, you might also realize unhealthy behaviors of your own. Perhaps you tend to isolate yourself or be too hard on others. There are probably real reasons for that, but in some cases it may be worth questioning some patterns of behavior.

Typically dysfunctional patterns within families are due to multiple people working together at it. But you can also work together to interrupt such patterns.

4. Identify areas to accept

On the other hand, sometimes the best way to work through family issues is to not fight against the grain. You may have already found that attempting to change each other’s political or religious views is futile. Instead, finding ways to agree to disagree might be more realistic.

Setting your own boundaries without trying to change others may also be effective. You might not be able to change the way a family member treats you, but you can set limits on when and how you spend time with them, or require certain behaviors, such as not yelling, whenever you visit (or you will need to leave).

By completing a genogram you can begin to see where these patterns exist and what steps you can choose (or not choose) to take to address them.

5. Plan for your future family

One of the best ways to interrupt generational patterns if of course with the next generation. Many people make a point of not parenting the same as their parents. That can be one way to make a change.

You can also work on any issues that you think may affect your current or future children. Think about what traits of your parents you have picked up that you don’t necessarily find helpful. Examples include emotional abuse, alcohol abuse, or financial difficulties. Working with a therapist may help you identify patterns and work ahead to change them.

And, give credit where it’s due. Perhaps your parents were too hard on you, but they did give you the drive that’s led to your success. (You get to decide if that was worth it or not.) Maybe they installed a sense of responsibility with money, or a spirituality that has made your life better.

6. Connect with your therapist

Genograms can often be a good way to share more about yourself with your therapist. It can also be a chance for your therapist to show their understanding of your background and circumstances. This connection is typically called building rapport, or creating a foundation of trust for you to work together.

No matter what you’re working through in therapy, your family (past or present) is likely impacting your life. When your therapist has a basic understanding of your past they can help you see connections and highlight areas for possible change.

7. Diagram your family’s medical conditions

In addition to emotional connections and issues, medical histories can be included in genograms as well. This can help you see patterns of hereditary conditions. In fact, sometimes doctors and other medical professionals use genograms for this very purpose.

This type of specialized diagram is sometimes called a medical genogram. You might label conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Mental health conditions like schizophrenia or dementia can be listed as well. You can see where looking at the patterns over several generations might be very helpful to you and your doctor.

Example genogram

Ready to see a genogram in action? Let’s look at a fun example using the character Marty McFly from the Back to the Future franchise. Even if you’ve never seen the movies, the example still works!

To create the genogram we start with a basic family tree. The most common format is to include three generations, including yourself, your parents and siblings, and your grandparents. However, you can certainly use more generations, or focus just on your immediate family.

Once you have the tree completed, you can start adding symbols to represent types of relationships. For example, one symbol represents a close relationship while another represents distances. Other symbols show emotional or physical abuse.

Some symbols of the genogram show factual information, such as divorce, illnesses, and if someone has passed away. While you may already know this information, it can be helpful and sometimes powerful to see them all together.

Take a look at the basic example below to get a basic idea, and then we’ll look at some other symbols you might use for your genogram.

You’ll see that like most families, Marty’s isn’t perfect. His dad’s lack of self-confidence may have been inadvertently passed down to him.

In fact, Marty’s character pointed this out himself in the movie when he said, “I’m beginning to sound like my old man!”

Since Marty is just a character and we didn’t see his family interact over time, it’s hard to know if our symbols are particularly accurate, but I think his genogram is a fun way to get started. :)

This is a completed genogram showing symbols of abuse, distance, and positive relationships.

Common genogram symbols

Marty’s symbol key is pretty limited because only certain traits were included. The chart below shows some of the most common symbols you can use to create your own tree, or to help your clients with theirs.

This is a chart showing visual symbols of a genogram such as being in love, hostile, controlling, or having substance abuse problems. The symbols are added to the genogram to show the big picture of how family members interact with each other.

Genogram templates

An easy way to get started with your genogram is to use a template. You might start by printing a basic family tree diagram, add your family names, and then get to the symbols. Or, you can use a digital template that you can edit yourself.

For example, I’m working on a Canva based template that you can edit fairly easily, adding all of your family’s information using real symbols. Visit here for updates!

More Mental Health Activities

Looking for more mental health and therapy resources? We offer dozens of materials including worksheets, games, activities, and more. Browse our store and giant store bundle to learn more.


bottom of page