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  • Genealogy, Family Therapy and the Micro-Computer

    Randy Gerson

    Published Date : April 1984
    Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers have only recently discovered what genealogists have known all along: who people are is partly determined by the past generations from which people came. It follows, consequently, that they can discover a great deal about themselves by researching their family histories and their genealogical heritage.

    Over the past thirty years there has been an increased awareness in the mental health field of the importance of families and family history. An entirely new mental health specialty has sprung known as "family therapy."

    Family therapists see not only individuals with particular problems but all family members. The therapy is based on the premise that one person's particular problem is often a part of a larger problem involving the family. Family problems need to be understood in terms of what is going on in the family both at present and in the past.

    Their interests in the family have led family therapists into family history research. To understand a particular family certain behavior patterns must be discovered. Like genealogists have been doing for years, family therapists have become detectives hot on the trail of elusive family facts that will allow them to better understand families.

    Family therapists have developed far reaching theories regarding the significance of family historical patterns. Genealogists continue their painstaking work in collecting large amounts of family data going back many generations and using methods developed over many years of careful research. Unfortunately, there has been little collaboration between these two distinct but related fields of endeavor. In this article we hope to be able to begin to bridge this gap by explaining some of the ways that family therapists look at family data and suggest some of the ways that genealogists might be helpful to the family therapists. I am a psychologist and a family therapist, not a genealogist. Hopefully, genealogists will have further suggestions on how the two fields may contribute to each other.

    The Family Genogram

    A basic research tool for the family therapist is what we call the family genogram. It is a graphic display or diagram that depicts the different generations of the family, and clinically relevant facts about each family member. An example of a genogram follows. (See Fig. 1.) Each family member is represented by either a square for males and a circle for females. The person' s name is above the figure with age or date of death below the figure. Family members' generational connections are diagramed by the lines that connect them. Those connected by a horizontal line below them are married to one another. Those connected by a horizontal line above them are siblings and the children of those above.

    The genogram uses a number of notational conventions. The solid figure is the target person or family member who originally came for help. A circle or square with a X across it signifies that the person is dead. Two children whose connecting lines converge from the same point are twins. A child whose connecting line is dotted is an adopted or foster child. And so on.

    Family therapists are also interested in the type of relationships between family members and will label them on the genogram. For example, a conflictual relationship between father and son may be depicted by a jagged line connecting them. Or, a very close relationship between mother and daughter my be shown by a thick solid line connecting these two. The family therapist will add whatever he or she can to the genogram to help him or her to better understand the family.

    The genogram is a practical tool used both for collecting family data and as a visual aid to teach the family about itself. It usually contains only a few generations, the most recent generations that are most relevant to the current family. It is neither as detailed nor as comprehensive as genealogical charts. It also my include information that is of little interest to the genealogist.

    Family therapists have found the genogram to be an efficient tool for collecting family information. This is gathered quicker and more concisely when the therapist and the family work together to fill out the genogram. A large amount of information can be fitted on one page for easy access by both the family and the therapist. What is more important, even, the family begins to look at itself as a unit; as a group of connected people who have a common history and a particular family pattern.

    The primary method that family therapists use for collecting information for the genograrn is asking questions. Requesting information from as many different family members as possible is essential since one of the goals is to reconnect family members through their common heritage. Many people find that once they begin to talk about family history with their relatives that they have much more in common with distant family members than they ever thought possible. However, family members are not always entirely cooperative in the search for family information. Some might be suspicious of what therapists are doing. They might be concerned that you are trying to embarrass them or uncover family skeletons. They may experience your questions as prying or an invasion of their privacy. Then, family members just may not understand why therapists should want such personal information anyway.

    Collecting family information can be particularly difficult in families with problems. They may silently agree to keep a very relevant fact a family secret. There may be parts of the family that are cut off from everyone else and who may not be contacted for information. Such cutoffs may add to the stress the family is really under. Since uncovering family secrets and getting disconnected parts of the family back together again is so important in helping families in crisis, family therapists have developed an entire series of techniques for coaching people on how to get information from non-cooperative and difficult family members.

    Family Patterns

    The family genogram and family chronology were both developed by family researchers to aid them in getting an overall view of a family's patterns and thus increase their understanding of and ability to help the family. Anyone who studies the family in this way obtains a tremendous respect for the power and the influence of the family. It is as if the family has a life of its own. Much of what we do as individuals is really simply playing a role in the family, one in which we do not always know that we are playing it. The forces within the family work in mysterious ways which therapists are not always able to control or determine. Many of seemingly personal problems are products of unfortunate ways of being in the family. In other words, families have patterns which tend to perpetuate themselves and they have profound effects on the people in the family. Below are some of the patterns that have been observed:

    - Family traits and characteristics are passed down from one generation to the next. These may partially be determined by genetics but more often by a family pattern. For example, the eldest son in each generation my always have been the mother's favorite and the most (or least) successful among his siblings.

    - The importance of sibling order. The order in which people are born seems to make a difference. We have observed that oldest children tend to be more conscientious whereas the "baby" is often more playful or irresponsible, for example.

    - Alternation between generations. Families may reverse themselves in critical ways from one generation to the next. For example a family may be very close one generation, very distant from ench other in the next, arid so on.

    - The importance of cutoffs. The cutting off of one part of the family from the rest of the family may have profound effects on all parts of a family. For example, parents who were completely cut off from their own parents may have a very difficult time with their own children.

    - Resolution of tension. Families my have characteristic ways of handling tension that are passed down from one generation to the next. For example, people in one family my never show their anger. Also, parents in one generation may resolve marital conflicts by focusing on their children.

    - The interconnectedness of family events. That important things happen in families often around the same time may not be just a coincidence. For example, a family member may get married after a long courtship directly following the death of a grandparent. It is almost that the family replaces the loss of a member with another. Also, mother might be getting depressed after her last child leaves home. Only when we look at the family as a whole will we be likely to see such events as connected.

    By observing such family patterns, pointing them out to the family and suggesting specific changes in the patterns by which family members relate to one another, the family therapist can often make significant changes in families.

    The Micro-Computer

    Anyone who has tried to amass family data over a number of generations quickly understands how unwieldy the information can get and how difficult it can be to keep it all organized. Genealogists have often used computers to help them in their organizational task and family therapists are now beginning to use them.

    With the recent advent of the economical and powerful micro-computer, family therapists can use the computer's power in his or her everyday clinical work. For example, I have recently developed software for the family therapist and researcher which organizes family information. Then it allows the user to manipulate the information in a number of different forms.

    A file is opened for each family member. Included is sex, dates of birth and death and details on family relations. Other critical variables such as occupation, location or symptomatology may be specified by the user. At the end of each file general comments or important life events for the subject person could be specified. Figure 2 shows an example of such a file.

    Once the information is entered, the computer can draw genograms of different parts of the family. The target of the genogram can be changed to show the family from the perspective of its various members. Similarly, labels on the genogram can be changed to highlight differing family characteristics. The genogram shown earlier (Figure 1) is a sample of a genogram produced by a computer.

    The computer can take also all the events in the family and list them in a chronological order chart. In this way the family therapist can get an overview of the history of the family and start to make important connections between family events. A sample of a chronology is shown in Figure 3.

    We hope that the micro-computer will make it easier for the psychologist and family therapist to collect family information and analyze family patterns. It is possible, even, that families with home computers will collect information, enter it into the computers at home and bring their disks to the therapists to examine and analyze.


    There are at least two ways that I believe family therapists and family scientists can benefit from collaboration with genealogists. First is the sharing of methods and resources. Second is sharing extensive data bases developed over the years by the genealogical community.

    Often a family therapist will become stuck with a family in which the family pattern is very unclear. Information is scanty and individual efforts to get information from other family members are not fruitful. One approach is to get the family to go back further in their history to uncover historical material and family patterns of the distant past that might shed light on present family problems. In other words, the family therapist will ask the family member to become a genealogist, though perhaps an amateur one.

    Who is better to refer such families to than to the genealogist? He or she is interested in the past and exploring the family's genealogy as far back as one can go. Genealogists have developed many methods of examining historical data that often shed light on a family's ancient history and genealogy. The archives and genealogical organizations have collected valuable historical documents including birth and death certificates, immigration records, diaries, and so on. Thus genealogists and genealogical societies should be very valuable resources for family therapists and the families they serve.

    Genealogical data can be helpful in family theoretical research as well. The basic premise of family therapy is that what has happened in families over the generations can have profound effects on the family's current functioning. What better data source to test these assumptions than the vast amounts of genealogical data already collected? I look forward to the day when family therapists will join with genealogists in extensive research projects into well-documented families to test the basic assumptions of family theory.

    The micro-computer should play a vital role in any collaboration between genealogists and family therapists. Large amounts of data will be entered into multi-purpose data base programs so the information can be examined from both a genealogical and family therapy perspective. The computer should allow easy accessibility to, and maximum transferability of, the information collected in such research efforts.

    In sum, family therapists are relative newcomers to the family history field. However, they bring a new and exciting perspective on the uses of family information. They could benefit greatly from the experience, expertise and developed methods of the genealogical community. The micro-computer should help both fields by making information more manipulatable, accessible and easy to transfer from one data source to another. I look forward to a long and exciting collaboration between the two fields of endeavor with both jointly focused on the history of the family.

    Figure 3.

    2 Mar. 1888 Alvan Collins born.
    4 Feb. 1900 Teresa Collins born.
    28 Mar. 1912 Jim Kent born.
    5 Jan. 1918 Henry Jones born.
    (Current age: 64)
    1919 Teresa Collins (age 18)
    & Jim Webb (age 19) marry.
    1920 Teresa Collins (age 19)
    & Jim Webb (age 20)
    18 Apr. 1921 Alvin Collins (age 33)
    & Teresa Collins (age 21) marry.
    12 July 1922 Alice Jones born.
    (Current age, 60)
    1 May 1925 James Collins born.
    (Current age: 57)
    8 Sep. 1826 (sic) Eileen Collins born

    Figure 2.
    1. SEX (M or F): F
    2. DATE Of BIRTH: 7/12/1922 (60 Y.O.)
    8. # oF SPOUSES: 2
    9. SPOUSE # 1: JIM KENT (7)
    10. MARRIAGE DATE: 6 FEB 1940 (AGE 17)
    11. # OF CHILDREN: 0
    12. SEP OR DIVORCE: 16 SEP 1943 D (AGE 21)
    13. SPOUSE # 2: HENRY JONES (6)
    14. MARRIAGE DATE: 5 APR 1948 (AGE 25)
    15. # OF CHILDREN: 3
    16. CHILD # 1: ALLAN JONES (1)
    17. CHILD # 2: ELLIS JONES (8)
    18. CHILD # 3: WILLIAM JONES (9)

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