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How to Construct a Genogram

This section shows you how to construct a FAMILY GENOGRAM which is a helpful tool for organizing information about family members. A genogram is much more than a traditional family tree because it allows us to view medical and psychological factors as well as other 'facts' of a family relationship system over several generations. By 'facts' I mean just that: age, sex, birth order, health status, marital status, date and cause of death, and known relationship dynamics between the various family members. These are things that, when included in a genogram, give us a very clear sense of the undercurrents in families.



CIRCLES designate females and SQUARES designate males [see image below]

A traditional marital relationship is shown by connecting a male and female with a straight line between them, including a forward hash (/) if they are divorced. I normally indicate the date of marriage and date of divorce in the diagram. The '2nd' notation [below] refers to the divorced wife's 2nd marriage. The two figures below the line indicate the two children that were born into the primary marriage. In this case, the placement of the forward hash shows that the children remain with the father and did not go into the mother's 2nd marriage with her.


Children born to a couple are shown below the marital line in the order of their birth, moving from left to right. In the above example the couple had two children; a son first, followed by a daughter.

A common way to show a couple not married but living together is to connect them with a dotted line instead of a solid line.

A couple that is married but currently separated is shown by making the forward hash line a dotted line without a date associated with it...which turns to a hard line once they are divorced.

A deceased family member is shown by putting an 'X' through the appropriate circle or square, with the date and cause of death noted along with their age at the time of death. [below]


You can also note twins, an adopted child, a stillbirth or miscarriage, even a foster child or child born outside the marriage in the following ways:


We can also note the quality of relationships between family members using consistent graphical representations. Consistency is important, as you want to be able to show that same relationship quality in other family members in other generations, as well.


One's nuclear family consists of a marital dyad and all children born into that marital dyad. A multi-generational family consists of several generations of marital dyads that are connected by birth to parents in previous generations. Family genograms, then, can be quite large -- taking up wall-sized graphics in some instances!

In the following example we are just looking at FATHER SIBLING POSITIONS over three generations of family flowing from a single marital dyad:


As you can see, once you start designating ages and deaths and causes of death, not to mention marriages and divorces and any stillborn children, etc -- things can get quite complicated. But fun! Constructing a family genogram is a worthwhile effort and it is a critical tool in therapy sessions with a trained family expert.

Positioning: (a) the male spouse is always on the left side of the marital line, and the female spouse is always on the right, and this is true for every generation diagrammed; (b) the oldest child of either sex is always on the left side of the sibling line, and the youngest child is always on the right side of the sibling line with all other siblings placed chronologically between them.

Several or more marriages will branch out from the original marital dyad that decides to divorce and the partners then remarry. This can get complicated at times but it is easy to do if you construct such a genogram on a large enough piece of paper. In consultations with families I prefer to use a large blackboard for this purpose, as it greatly helps to visualize family dynamics as they spill over the generations.

Here is an example of how to diagram a multi-marriage dyad:


The original marital dyad (in blue) in the above example divorced after having three children and each partner married new partners. Blue Husband's 2nd marriage was to Green Woman, who was previously married and divorced. In marriage #1 she had two children, a son and a daughter; she brought only the daughter with her into marriage #2 to Blue Husband (this is indicated by the arrow from the green child pointing to marriage #2. In addition, Blue Husband brought his oldest son with him from his first marriage into this 2nd marriage with Green Woman, which is indicated by the arrow from the blue child pointing to marriage #2.

Blue Woman's 2nd marriage was to Purple Man who was previously married (without children) to Purple Woman. That Purple Marriage produced no children but Blue Woman brought her two Blue Daughters with her into that 2nd marriage (indicated by the arrow from the two blue daughters pointing to marriage #2). The Purple Husband that Blue Woman married was the second husband of his Purple Wife who came to that marriage with a Purple Son from her 1st marriage.

As you can see, things can get messy. Family relationships can get messy! Think of it like you think of a difficult crossword puzzle -- as challenging!

The death of family members is important to document with their age and date of death. This tells a lot about how long a marriage lasted before that death, and how old they were at the time of death. The notation should also include cause of death (accident, suicide, cancer, etc.). The death of children should be similarly noted as it gives information about the impact of that death on older and younger siblings.


In the above diagram, for example, three important deaths occurred in 1999, the same year that the couple married. During their first year of marriage the couple also suffered a miscarriage. These deaths have very important ramifications for the couple and for their relationships with their surviving children.

It is important when constructing a family genogram to establish CONSISTENT RULES for how you diagram family relationships and family facts. The consistency will show repeating patterns over several generations, if and when they exist, whereas a lack of consistency will show very little patterning even when it is there.

Genograms can also be constructed for non-traditional relationships (i.e. gay relationships) but understand that the non-traditional nature of these relationships only reflect here and now cultural influences; the partners involved retain and are still significantly impacted by the influences of the traditional multigenerational family backgrounds that they were born into.

So there you have it! You now have some basic tools for constructing your own family genogram.



NOTE: The best resource for studying the development and use of genograms is the book Genograms: Assessment and Intervention (2nd ed.) by Monica McGoldrick et al. I refer you to it for more comprehensive information about genogram construction, not only for individuals seeking knowledge about their families but for human service professionals wishing to fine-tune their diagnostic skills.

McGoldrick, M., Gerson, R., & Shellenberger, S. (1999). Genograms: Assessment and Intervention (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc.