The therapeutic impact of your family tree

Try this...

Take a sheet of paper. Give another sheet to every member of your family. Now, each of you draw your family tree.

You could use square boxes to represent the men and boys, circles to represent the women and girls, and star-shapes to represent those who are non-binary, trans, fluid, or other gender identities. Start with you. Go up a line to draw in your parents, up another to add in their parents. Each line of boxes, circles, and stars up and down the page is another generation, fanning out into the present.

You could use different colours to pick up on the social differences that seem important in your family; maybe people of a Muslim faith could be in blue, people with a disability in orange, black people in black, people who are gay in pink, while those in poverty could be purple, and those whose first language is not English could be red. Fifty years ago, perhaps, genograms may have been just one colour - these days, that’s rare.

My own family tree is pretty, a colourful rainbow of differences. What’s interesting to me in my own family tree and in those of the families who come to see me is the connections and disconnections between the different parts of the family trees. No one lives in isolation. Even those who live alone are surrounded by their history and by their stories and ideas.

I invite families to draw the lines. Two strong lines between you and your brother means a strong relationship, a zig-zag line between your sister and your dad a difficult one. A single dotted line - well, you decide. Drawing in the lines of connection and disconnection can be a revelation all on its own.  Seeing what other people have drawn is a starting point for curiosity. Maybe you and your children don’t see the same things. Maybe they are not wrong; they are just standing in a different place. Curious, isn’t it?

What contributes to these lines is the family stories and the way that each one of us knows them, understands them, and tells them. Events that happen in our families generations ago may cast long shadows or beams of light into the present, and those events will be influenced and characterised by the conventions and the ideas of those times.

Maria told me that in 1948 her grandmother ran away from home on the day it was to be discovered that she had overspent on the meagre housekeeping - taking pennies from her husband’s business to make ends meet. Her subsequent treatment with ECT and her long recovery led to Maria’s mother, then a teenager, leaving school to care for her mother. Her older brother continued with his studies, and her father continued to work. No one ever discussed what had happened. Maria’s mother, on course to go to medical school, became a nurse instead and later married a generous man. That’s a whole library of stories right there. Stories of gender, of age, of ideas about money and power, of rules about which stories can be told and which cannot, about health and duty, about shame and silence, about hope and intention, and of commitment and love. All of these have effects on the next generation and the ones after that. You and the stories that you live cannot fail to make a difference.

It’s the same with your family. Maybe your parents had hopes for a life for you that wasn’t the one they experienced. Maybe that created unvoiced tensions, or maybe that led to fewer secrets and more hope. Maybe your sister died when you were young and your parents, folded in on themselves, failed to really see you for years, and now you have to try so hard just to be, that every day requires resolve. Maybe your father left your mother when you were young, leaving you feeling burdened by her vulnerability, and now that your partner has left you, you are determined you won’t be the same. You are the product of your heritage, yes, but you also create yourself from the way you relate to the stories that surround you. The delight and the terror is to begin to tell those stories, carefully, sensitively, and with honour, so that each person can have time to be curious about the connections, the disconnections, and what makes us... us.

We all have stories to tell. Your family tree - and the way that you draw it - may just be the first line. Once upon a time...

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Alton, Hampshire, GU34
Written by Penney Hames, BA, MA, MSc
Alton, Hampshire, GU34

I am a qualified, registered and experienced family and systemic psychotherapists which means that I talk with families, couples and individuals in a friendly, inclusive way at my therapy rooms at home in Alton, Hampshire. Our relationships create and define us, so talking together with those who mean the most to us helps.

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