When I was two years into my social work practice, I was introduced to the cultural genogram through systemic training. Prior to this, I had used the genogram/family tree function on the local authorities recording system, but other than using and adding to this to understand who (to our knowledge) was in the biological family, I had not used it as a tool for direct or relational work with families.
A genogram is a visual tool that shows a family tree and is used to give a pictorial representation of a family system. I quickly fell in love with the concept – more than just asking and drawing who was in the family, but exploring the relationships, family scripts and social GGRRAAACCEEESSS within the family network. I would take either a big sheet of paper or lots of pieces I could later join together, some coloured pens and draw a genogram and key, focused on the unique dynamics of the family.
A study by Laird et al. (2012) indicated that whilst not used in a high number of cases, those workers who co-created a handwritten genogram with a family (in contrast to the worker completing the system genogram) would include more extensive wider family members. This can be particularly helpful for safety planning using the family network, including Family Group Conferences or exploring Life Long Links. However, workers must consider the importance of seeking to understand beyond biological family members and the role of family friends and peer relationships, particularly where concerns are present regarding exploitation and extra-familial harm (Firmin, 2019).
A few years into my practice I got a role as a consultant social worker, reclaiming the social work model, first used in Hackney and having weekly unit supervisions, in which we would draw a genogram to explore the strengths and difficulties for each family. As a unit we would use this to then hypothesise about what may be happening, generating systemic questions to ask the worker or family members that may help bring positive change to the family system. The visual aid of the genogram would help us to reflect on alternative narratives, different perspectives and missing information that had not been considered. The use of group hypothesising in this way can help a family and practitioner to re-frame concerns and support a more open working relationship (Gaughan and Kalniak, 2011).
Using systemic questioning can support understanding of the family’s views and wishes, for example; a question I sometimes ask after mapping the different strengths of relationships with coloured pens is, ‘if you could change any of these relationships or lines, what would the genogram then look like?’ This may show that a child wants to address the strained relationship they have with a parent, to reconnect with an absent family member, or that their family aspirations may be very different to those of the local authority.
Whilst sensitivity, as with all areas of social work practice, is important when completing a genogram as there may be triggers and difficult relationships that come to light, I was often surprised to see how much some families enjoyed the process. One couple asked to keep their daughters’ genogram, who was only age one, as a family tree to show her as she grew up. This is something that could be offered to any family completing their own genogram. Alternatively another mother I worked with felt strongly that her former stepfather should not be included on her own child’s genogram (which had been automatically added by the recording system) because she did not consider that he played any role in her daughter’s life. After exploring this with her and ensuring there were no safeguarding concerns present or in the family history, he was removed from the genograms within the reports but this explained within the child’s file.
A genogram is one of the first things on my to do list, be that a new Special Guardianship Order (SGO) assessment or supporting a student on placement by asking them to draw their own genogram as a tool for developing reflective practitioners. Drawing them can take some practising and may feel daunting in front of a watching family member, so I find it a valuable exercise to give students and newly qualified workers a safe place to practice drawing and asking relevant questions, as well as a way to support them in exploring their own experiences and how this could influence their practice. This Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP) resource supports the use of genograms in supervision: Drawing a genogram.
Genograms can be used creatively using the child’s toys or items such as Lego figures, as demonstrated by Becca Dove on Twitter.
Some practitioners have spoken of using magazines for children to populate their genogram with images that they feel represent the family members, or of completing a genogram of a new placement family to help the child have a visual representation of who they will be living with. The different uses, key messages and guidance on how to use genograms is discussed in a new Practice Tool on genograms in practice.
Using narrative therapy’s concept of externalising, we might also use an object, placed on a genogram to represent a difficulty and aid exploration about how this affects the family dynamics. For example, an object representing alcohol use might be placed in between parents to support discussion about how that changes their relationship when present. This may enable people to realise that they and the problem are not the same thing (Russell and Carey, 2002).
My training, and family therapists such as McGoldrick et al. (2020), taught the importance of completing your own personal genogram before using these in practice, to understand how the process feels and to have a knowledge of your own experiences and potential bias. In doing this, I was surprised at the feelings this elicited, as whilst I knew the different nature of my various family members relationships, seeing them visually drawn made me consider the dynamics and pressures in the family system in a way I had not before. This was quite striking considering I had been the one to provide and know all the information on the genogram.
We hope that the new Research in Practice Practice Tool on genograms will support practitioners to use genograms throughout their work including exploring and understanding family networks; direct work and assessment; encouraging curiosity and strengths-based approaches in understanding family dynamics; to inform and support planning; and to support and understand a child in care’s identity and relationships.