A genogram is a graphic representation or a diagram of family members and their relationships involving the last three generations. It looks very much like a family tree or a genealogy chart, but it goes beyond a traditional family tree by allowing the user to visualize hereditary patterns and psychological factors that punctuate relationships. It is sort of an illustrated family tree, using different symbols representing gender, family relationships, mental issues, addictions, abuse, and many other types of information related to an individual’s family history. Genograms include information about the kinds of relationships that exist between family members. In addition, genograms depict critical and nodal events in the family’s history and information about the family itself as a whole, particularly as related to the family life cycle and what is called “family emotional process” (Galindo et al., 2006). It is with this information from genograms, family therapists can use as a tool to map family relations, giving both therapists and clients a past and present overview of family dynamics, relationships and patterns.
Constructing My Genogram
The creation of my genogram actually started in 1989, when I was required to do research on my parent’s genealogy covering three generations of birth records to comply with a blood quantum requirement for a homestead lease application through the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL). My research journey took me to places such as the Hawaii State Archives (Iolani Palace Grounds), Hilo LDS Mormon Church, cemeteries, talking to friends of deceased relatives, and eventually to the State Department of Health to retrieve birth, marriage and death certificates. It also involved interviewing family members to gather information about family history and also obtaining copies of family photos and documentations. Obtaining birth certificates covering three generations was more difficult than expected as most births were not recorded prior to the 1900’s. But I continued through the years researching and documenting information and had taken on the role of the family historian. What originally started out as just obtaining birth certificates turned into a quest of understanding the importance of finding, preserving and sharing the history of my family so that my children will have a sense of who they are and their ancestors that lived before them.
Approximately five years ago, I put all of my family research information into a genogram software called GenoPro (www.genopro.com). Using this software, I was able to create family profiles, link individuals, and add information, such as birth and death dates. This software also enables me to illustrate sibling patterns, intergenerational relationships, traumatic experiences, conflicts, success and dysfunctions. Ultimately, the genogram is a tool that has given me a better understanding of my family dynamics and significant individual qualities.
Genogram – Makekau
When I initiated research for my family genogram years ago, the starting point focused on my grandfather, Luther Kahekili Makekau. The reason being, he was very well-known, born in Maui’s remote Waimanu Valley in 1890, he lived until 1988, straddling two centuries, two ways of life and two cultures. He was a direct descendant of Kahekili, Maui’s warrior king, blood father of Kamehameha the Great. Musician and award-winning documentary filmmaker Eddie Kamae paid tribute to my grandfather with a documentary exploring the life of this outlaw philosopher, poet, cattle rustler, and a man who helped shape Hawaiian history in the 20th century. He was also married seven times with at least eight children that I know of. From my grandfather, I connected my father, Abraham who married my mother, Bertha K.S. Chung. As you can see, the genogram shows the paternal side (Makekau) of my family is much larger than the maternal side (Chung), but there were closer relationships throughout the maternal side of the family. Probably the main reason for that, which is shown on the genogram, my mother really disliked my grandfather, so the relationship with my father’s side of the family were basically cutoff for me. My brother and sister had closer ties with my father’s side because they were a lot older than me. I was the youngest of four children, a brother and two sisters, the closest sibling 11 years older than me.
My father’s side of the family was filled with physical and emotional abuse among family members. This side of the family loved to consume alcohol; many had alcohol and substance abuse issues. As compared to my mother’s side, the family was very close-knit, with some relationships cut-off, but eventually mended. There were no signs of any physical, emotional, or sexual abuse on my mother’s side of the family. Substance abuse played a major part in both my brother’s life and my life. There were some distrust issues within my immediate family having to do my brother and his siblings. There were also some jealousy issues with my older siblings, being that I was the youngest and somewhat spoiled.
There is something unique about my family genogram—my father’s side of the genogram connects to my mother’s side—George Makekau, son of Luther, married Lucy Ben, mother of Bertha Chung. My grandmother, Lucy, married George after my original grandfather, Sung Gwan Chung passed away. So, my Uncle George married my grandmother, but I always knew him as my grandfather as they were married before I was born. My original grandfather, Sung Gwan Chung, an immigrant from Korea, passed away when my mother and her siblings were very young. It gets a little complicated when I have to explain this to people, but George met my grandmother Lucy, a widow at that time, through my parents who were already married.
As I interpret my family genogram, there are many things that stood out and has helped me in my life today. Family members have different perceptions and recollections regarding family members and events, no one perspective is more “right” than the other. For instance, my grandfather was liked by many and dislike by others because of his different ways of living and his perception of life. There were many distant and cut-off relationships on both sides of the family and alcohol and substance abuse issues. The most important benefit of working with my family genogram is being able to determine the type of relationship that I want to have with my family overall, in other words, my “emotional process.” Since my original research, I have a closer relationship with my family and also changed the distant relationship on my father’s side as I keep in contact with many family members. The most rewarding experience from my research was an interview with my mother before she passed in 2009. The knowledge that she possessed about both sides of the family were priceless. It was a turning point in my life, as I understood who I am and how I came to be.
Family therapists consider the context of families and individuals through family history, experiences and relationships. Families exist in a social, cultural, economic, and environmental context, which creates a meaning system, a place from which to view the world and other people. The genogram is a therapeutic tool used in family therapy as a way of informing and empowering families. Genograms provide a three-generational picture of a family and its motion through the life cycle. It is used to make an appropriate assessment of the relationship patterns and where intervention may be needed to assist the families reduce their dysfunction and/or problematic situations that originally brought them into therapy.
Family systems therapy, no matter the nature of the presenting clinical problem, is always governed by two basic goals: (a) management of anxiety and relief from symptoms, and (b) an increase in each participant’s level of differentiation in order to improve adaptiveness (Goldberg & Goldberg, 2008). A genogram allows family members to understand and accept their individual responsibility in the emotional functioning of the family unit. By learning to recognize the emotional patterns and how anxiety is handled in the family, individual members can manage themselves in healthier functional ways. Therefore, family therapy is most often a relationship between a therapist and a family member who wants to change his/her level of functioning in the family.
A family therapist can use the family genogram for many different purposes, for example, helping clients look for commonalities to reduce self-blame and to look for instances in which another family member resolved an issue similar to the client’s presenting concern. Clients will come to family therapy blaming themselves for the difficulties that someone in their family is facing. Using a genogram, the family therapist can point out where this problem exists in other areas of the family to help the client to see that the problem is related to the family as a whole and not solely to one individual. A strength-based therapist would believe that finding strengths and solutions are more beneficial than finding faults.
“To make sense of what we experience in the present—to understand our symptoms, conflicts, cutoffs, and even the multiple characterizations of different family members—we must understand our family’s history” (McGoldrick, 2011). Through research, I realized that a genogram is much more than just a map with squares and circles with relevant dates of birth, death, and marriage. Though the historical context is important, the genogram gave me a clearer picture of my family’s relationship patterns and a better understanding of myself. Drawing from both sides of my parent’s family history allows me to understand how patterns of relationship and reactivity developed in the family, which is helpful because the focus becomes less personal. There were more patterns of abuse, conflicts, cut-offs, and distancing behaviors on my father’s side of the family, which influenced my close relationships with my mother’s side of the family throughout my life. Familial links are recognized that identifies patterns of illness, disease, and at-risk behaviors, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and substance abuse. This has increased my awareness of living a healthy life and making wise lifestyle choices.
The goal of the genogram is to work on oneself—not to attempt to fix the family, so to speak. The genogram brings out the concept of differentiation of self, a concept used in
Bowen Family Systems Therapy. This means becoming more of a self—knowing that your goals and values come from within you as opposed to being influenced by unconscious family patterns, myths and beliefs. Being a self-differentiated person, I would have to work on my emotion process, changing or replacing behaviors to break certain unhealthy family patterns and keep the behaviors that continue health family patterns.
My genogram journey will forever continue building, gathering information, photos, and documentation as I meet more relatives and friends of family. My research has taken a new level as I have met many relatives and other family historians through social networks such as Facebook and website dedicated to the Makekau family called Tribal Pages, which was started by several family members. The family tree on this site contains 15191 relatives and 765 photos
(http://manasemakekaujr.tribalpages.com/). My genogram research answered-- “Who I am? Where did I come from? What are my roots?”--eventually leading me to much more information than just the historical dates. I have gained a deeper understanding of where my family came from, why the family functions the way it does, and why individual members, including myself, have come to be the way we are. Most importantly, this genogram is a gift to my children to understand their roots and their emotional inheritance, with all its vulnerabilities, passions, talents, and strengths.
Galindo, I., Boomer, E., Reagan, D. (2006). A Family Genogram Workbook. Kearney:
Goldenberg, H & Goldenberg I. (2008). Family Therapy An Overview, Seventh Edition.
McGoldrick, M. (2011). The Genogram Journey, Reconnecting with your Family. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company.
McGoldrick, M., Gerson, R., & Petry, S. (2008). Genograms Assessment and Intervention. Third