A genogram is a highly detailed family tree that allows a family and therapist to analyze hereditary, relational, and psychological patterns across generations. In a genogram, raw data is collected about the extended family and organized to give insight to patterns like sickness, eating habits, family trauma, mental health diagnoses, psychological struggles, substance use, etc. The genogram can also shed light on relational patterns like parenting styles or dynamics between specific family member roles. In these ways, the genogram takes an ordinary family tree to the next level, making it useful for therapeutic insight and treatment.
At Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, the genogram is one of the Enhanced Family Services that we offer to families. If parents elect to participate in a genogram, this is optimally done early on in the Open Sky process so that it can complement a student’s treatment plan and enhance their broader Open Sky experience. A Family Services Therapist (like myself) will collect a wide range of data regarding the student, family of origin, and extended family. I then review the data, converse with the parents to clarify any information collected, and create the genogram. The genogram is presented to the family as an image with circles and squares representing individual family members, brackets and lines indicating relationships, and a legend showing all of the components of the graph that represent specific patterns or dynamics. (Below is an example of the emotional relationship layer of a genogram, along with the corresponding legend.) I then share the genogram with the primary therapist in order to be used with the student’s treatment plan. If authorized by the parents, I can also distribute it to the educational consultant and any home professionals.
The beauty of the genogram is that a family can take it with them beyond Open Sky. Any professional whom they go to in the future that has been trained in family therapy will be well-versed in the genogram and how it may be utilized. Therefore, the genogram doesn’t just benefit the family during their time at Open Sky, rather it can also inform any aftercare experience or therapy down the road.
Open Sky is primarily about stabilization, assessment, and the beginning stages of treatment for the students. By living in groups in the wilderness, we can control the physical and relational variables to really look beneath the surface at what is going on for each student. The genogram is a fantastic assessment tool that can complement this process. It is like a roadmap for the primary clinical therapist. The family history presented in this form gives context to the student’s behavior and thought patterns, allowing the therapist to determine the best treatment methods and work with the parents on weekly phone calls.
For example, with a student who has Borderline Personality Disorder, the genogram shows what that person’s early attachments were like and what the parents’ and other family members’ early attachments were like. Or if a female student has a strained relationship with her mother causing her to behave or think a certain way, the genogram might display similar dynamics that existed between other mother-daughter relationships in the family system.
Though it may sound detached, the genogram is basically a giant pool of data. However, sometimes we need to be detached from the data to really step back and recognize what it’s showing. This can be challenging when the content is emotional and relational. Participating in a genogram indicates the parents’ willingness to be aware of patterns that may be difficult to acknowledge or understand. It gives the parents insight into who they are as individuals within the family system, which they can often lose sight of in their roles as caregivers. It also gives them insight into their own parenting styles and how they might have been influenced by generational patterns.
Open Sky is a holistic and family-centered wilderness program. We don’t just focus on the student in a vacuum. We intervene at a systems level—a level that involves everyone, particularly the family of origin. As a Family Services Therapist, my work is primarily focused on the parents. After the data is collected, organized, and discussed, I talk with parents about how the insight from this data can be applied to their lives. How can they shift the generational dynamics that contributed to the struggles that brought them to Open Sky? We focus on how to communicate and relate to their loved ones, be mindful of their thoughts and behaviors, attune to the child’s emotions, and practice healthy parenting styles.
The final step is practical application. This is how other Family Services can really bring the genogram to life. Similarly, the genogram can enrich the work that occurs in the other Family Services. If parents engage in both Parent Coaching and a genogram, for instance, they will be working with the same Family Services therapist throughout both services. Because of this, the genogram will provide that therapist with an extra degree of knowledge off the bat when conducting Parent Coaching. Or, when parents attend Wellness Weekend with the background of what they know from the genogram, they can incorporate this knowledge into a mindful wellness plan to move forward with healthier behaviors and patterns. In a Family Quest, we can really unpack the content of a genogram with the parents and child together.
I often witness parents come to the realization, through completing both a genogram and Family Quest, that the way they were parented as children does not work with their own kids. The genogram draws a connection between these experiences. It shows them that in order to relate more effectively to their children, perhaps they need to display more emotional intimacy with them or hold more boundaries, for example. By pairing the genogram with other components of Open Sky programming, the detached, raw data becomes tangible, concrete, and actionable.
For more information or to sign up for a genogram, talk to your primary therapist or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.