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Reflecting on extended family dynamics can help us understand the impact of intergenerational patterns. When we can step back and look at the larger context of our extended family, we can learn more about our present situation: how we got where we are, why we think what we think and why we do what we do.
One helpful tool that can be used to gain insight into family influences is a genogram, which is basically a visual and formalized family tree filled with what might appear to be random lines and symbols. There is a method to this madness, and it only works if you put pen to paper and try it for yourself (or with your therapist).
Here’s an example of a completed genogram of the Rose Family from Schitt’s Creek:
The basic parts of a genogram include: names and ages of extended family members (at least two generations is suggested), lines connecting various relationships, and symbols that identify various family patterns.
First, start with your biological parents:
Now, draw horizontal lines to indicate marriage and horizontal lines to indicate children born from this relationship (left to right, youngest to oldest).
You can now add in any additional family members (grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, etc.). You may have to redraw the genogram a few times to get it to all fit on one page.
Don’t forget to add in the ages (or lifespan) of each member. You can put an X over anyone who has passed. This may seem insensitive, so use any symbolism that fits for you. Unless you are trying to compare your genogram to someone else’s, the actual symbol you choose isn’t as important.
Now that you have your family tree drawn out, consider what patterns you are interested in looking at. Here’s a list of examples:
- Relationships (draw lines between people to indicate closeness, distance/disconnection, abuse, or conflict; you can also draw circles around groups of people that are close or estranged from others in the family)
- Drug/alcohol use, smoking habits; recovery
- Addictions (gambling, etc.)
- Religious/spiritual/church affiliations
- Military experience
- Professions (teacher, artists, etc)
- Mental health (depression, anxiety, etc)
- Country of origin
- Adoptions, miscarriages
- Medical history
- Literally anything else you want to track (favorite color, hometown, pets)
Don’t forget to draw yourself a key so you don’t lose track of your symbols.
Now that you have this fancy schmancy family tree in front of you, all scribbled in and labeled with different symbols, what you do with it is up to you.
You can start to identify intergenerational family patterns. Maybe you notice that your father’s side of the family is full of drug use and artistry or that your brother’s wife and his kids are estranged from your parents, like your grandparents were with their parents. Notice what values are shared (or not shared) among various family members (i.e., blue-collar workers, military involvement, government workers).
Take some time to consider your own experience within this larger system. What do you value, and how does this align with your genogram? Do you notice any patterns that you have taken on inadvertently? What changes do you want to make in your own life, now that you’ve identified the larger context of your family tree?
Learning new things about yourself isn’t always easy. If you came out of this exercise with more questions, feel free to reach out to us for resources or support at www.thegraciousmind.com. We’re here for you.