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What is a Genogram?

A genogram is a family tree that comes alive. Families are complex systems that interact with other communities and kin groups, of which they are a part of, and they cannot be fully understood without the wider context in which they live. Genograms contain a wealth of information on the families represented because they allow you to illustrate not only how members of a family tree relate to each other, but how they are a product of their time, by their behaviors, friendships, and many more.

A genogram will not only show you the names of people who belong to your family lineage, but how these people interact with each other.

Family trees are only a mere representation of generic parent and child links. However, there are complex interplays within a family unit which can only be understood through the use of a genogram. A genogram will not only show you the names of people who belong to your family lineage, but how these people interact with each other and with others who are significantly involved in their lives (clan or tribe members, slaves, tutors, godparents, live-in nannies). For example, a genogram will illustrate how your Vietnamese grand-mother's arranged marriage was determined before she was born through alliances, and how your African-American cousins ended up in Nova Scotia in the early 1800's. Even if you want to keep your work simple by including only your immediate family, you can quickly illustrate in your genogram that your uncle George and his wife Anita have two children, but also that their youngest child was sent to boarding school, that Uncle George suffered from depression, was an alcoholic, and a philosopher, while Aunt Anita has not spoken to her brother for years, has breast cancer and has a history of being unfaithful. Family history has never been so interesting!

Benefits of a genogram in genealogy

As a genealogist,  genograms will allow you to depict significant persons and events in your family's history. Genograms can also include annotations about the medical history and major personality traits of each member of your family. Genograms will help you uncover intergenerational patterns of behavior, marriage choices, family alliances and conflicts, the existence of family secrets, and other information that will shed light on your family's present situation. What better reason to do genealogy than to be able to learn life lessons from your ancestors...

Interesting facts about genograms:

  • The word "genogram" was first proposed by Dr. Murray Bowen in 1978 as a replacement for the longer term "family diagram". The origin of the use of the term genogram is shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that Murray Bowen began using it in the late 1960s and by the 1970s the use of it by Bowen Systems Therapists was widely accepted. At the same time the concept was becoming accepted in the emerging field of Family Medicine and in the late 1970s a group called NAPCRG (North American Primary Care Research Group) had undertaken to standardize the symbols. The coordination of this group was given to Monica McGoldrick in 1980 and the groups standardization was published in the lst edition of Genograms published by WW Norton in 1985 by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson. Since that time the symbols agreed to by senior family therapists and family physicians at that time has been expanded and the most recent symbols from that framework will soon be available on GenoPro.

  • The concept of the genogram has been expanded by Monica McGoldrick in her book titled: Genograms: Assessment and Intervention (3rd edition due this fall). The symbols and patterns described in that book will be fully available from GenoPro shortly.

  • The term genogram has not yet been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it does have an entry in Wikipedia.

  • The National Society of Genetic Counselors created standardized symbols for genograms in the 1980s. However, GenoPro and Monica McGoldrick will be collaborating to unify newer genogram symbols to include in our software and in future editions of McGoldricks book.

  • Genograms are not limited to family members. They can also include people who play an important role in the dynamics of the family, such as godparents, clergy members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.

  • Genograms are often used in family therapy to help identify destructive patterns of behavior.

  • Genograms can be used in genetic research to identify traits that are passed from one generation to another.


Medical Genograms

As we saw above, one of the reasons to research your family history is to find out about hereditary diseases that run in your family. To see a clear picture of genetic diseases that run in your family, you can create a medical genogram.

How to put together a medical genogram:

The first step in creating a medical genogram is to talk to your relatives about their health history. For your medical genogram, take particular interest in diseases such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, mental illness (Alzheimers disease, depression, schizophrenia, learning problems, mental retardation), thyroid disease, stroke, kidney disease, birth defects (spina bifida, cleft lip, heart defects), and others. Also, pay close attention to cases of alcoholism, smoking, and drug use.

Record the age at which the condition began, as this can be relevant information. For instance, did your grand-mother develop breast cancer at age 39 or at age 80? This may help to determine if you are predisposed to such a disease. Information on the age at death of deceased relatives can also be relevant. Dont forget to include the ethnicity of your ancestors, as some genetic health problems occur more often in specific ethnic groups.

A medical genogram is helpful in determining patterns of disease or illness within a family.

A medical genogram is helpful in determining patterns of disease or illness within a family. Parents are an excellent source to begin with in collecting data: ask them about their parents, their siblings and their cousins. Older relatives such as grand-parents, great-aunts and great-uncles can also offer lots of information. Some relatives may not be comfortable with the idea of sharing their medical history or that of their close relatives. This is especially true in cases where the health issue is associated with a social stigma, such as obesity, physical handicaps, mental disorders, or AIDS. Also, they may not be aware of diseases that occurred in their family when they were younger. However, whatever information you can gather can prove to be helpful.

Ask your relatives if they have collected family trees, charts, or listings of their family members. Health information may be recorded in baby books, birthday date books, or a family bible. Some pictures may also reveal a case of polio, or other physical disorders.

Medical records are the most helpful written resources for your medical genogram, but they may be difficult to obtain due to confidentiality limitations. You may want to consult death certificates, as they include a "cause of death" section which may be helpful if death was the result of natural causes, such as an illness.

For those who have been adopted, medical genograms can be a real challenge. Your adoptive family may be able to provide you some information, or you might be able to gather some from the adoption agency records. Again, if your biological parents have passed away, their death certificate may be of special interest.

Visit the medical genograms page to learn more about creating medical genograms with GenoPro.

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