top of page

Understanding Family Patterns: Gaining Insights from the Past to Improve the Future

Robbie Robertson once said, "Your heritage isn't something you stumble upon; it's already there, waiting to be discovered and shared." Our life paths are significantly shaped by those who came before us—our parents, ancestors, family members—as well as the influence of friends and mentors. A powerful tool for exploring the impact of these influences is the genogram exercise. This process involves tracing your family history to examine various aspects such as careers, relationships, health, and personality traits. In the following discussion, we'll delve into how to conduct a genogram exercise and explore its benefits, including understanding how our past influences our career choices, thought patterns, relationships, and behaviors.

This article was originally published October 28, 2022 on and has since been modified to include a step-by-step for completing the Genogram activity. Click here for the original article.

“If you don't recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.” - Madeleine L’Engle

Insights and scientific perspectives

What insights can we gain from analyzing our family history through genograms, and is there scientific evidence supporting this practice? Research shows that by studying the careers, health, and behaviors of our relatives and those close to us, we can uncover reasons behind certain behaviors, beliefs, health issues, mental health conditions, and career choices.

The debate between genetics and environment

It's crucial to acknowledge the ongoing debate in psychology over "nature vs. nurture." This debate questions the extent to which a person's characteristics are shaped by genetics (nature) or by their environment and experiences (nurture). Modern psychology accepts that both genetics and environmental factors play complex roles in shaping personality, intelligence, behavior, and other traits. Consequently, genograms are viewed as diagrams that map out these intricate influences on an individual, acknowledging both genetic traits and shared experiences as potential explanations for similarities or differences between family members (PsychologyToday, n.d.).

Erich Fromm, a renowned psychologist, emphasized that a child's most significant influence is the character of their parents, rather than isolated events.

“The most important influence on a child is the character of its parent, rather than this or that single event.” - Erich Fromm

Parental influence on career choices

A study by Georgia Southern University found a notable number of students pursuing teaching had parents in the education sector, suggesting parental careers influence children's career decisions (Tillman, 2015). JobList surveys revealed that 48% of participants felt their parents significantly guided their career paths, with nearly 40% feeling pressured to heed their parents' advice. Additionally, two-thirds of parents expressed disappointment when their children chose different careers, indicating the profound impact of parental expectations on career choices. Interestingly, both parents and children showed a preference for careers in information technology, highlighting a trend in career alignment within families (JobList, 2021).

Research by Meta (formerly Facebook) supports the idea that children are more likely to pursue careers similar to their parents', though the absolute numbers remain low. For instance, sons of military professionals are five times more likely to join the military, yet only one in four actually does. This suggests that while there's a familial trend in career choices, individuals often carve out their own paths (Adamic & Filiz, 2016).

In essence, while parents influence their children's career choices, the complexity of this relationship is highlighted by the nature vs. nurture debate. Factors such as parental career experiences, the parent-child relationship, and the child's unique experiences all play a role.

Influence on relationships, thought patterns, and mental health

Family dynamics significantly affect a child's development, shaping their personality, behaviors, beliefs, and mental health. Melissa Stanger, a Licensed Master Social Worker, notes that parents' relationships can influence how their children manage vulnerability, conflict, and emotional expression (2019). The family environment teaches children either healthy or unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns.

Regarding mental health, genetics play a role, but so do environmental factors. Stanford University research indicates that having a close relative with major depression increases an individual's risk of developing the condition, though about half of the risk factors are genetic and the other half are environmental (Levinson & Nichols, n.d.).

The influence of family relationships and behaviors during childhood has a lasting impact on individuals' futures, affecting their personalities, behaviors, mental health, and how they handle conflicts.

“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” - Pearl S. Buck

The why: why study your genogram?

Understanding the value of studying your genogram can offer insights into the influences shaping your life. By analyzing the relationships, careers, and health histories of our ancestors, we can uncover the origins of our personalities and the potential roots of our personal challenges. But what specific benefits does delving into a genogram provide beyond self-awareness?

Boosting intellectual performance

Research highlighted in the European Journal of Social Psychology reveals a fascinating benefit: reflecting on one's ancestry can enhance intellectual performance. In a study by Fischer et al. (2010), participants were asked to contemplate their genetic origins before undergoing intelligence tests. The results showed that those who thought about their ancestors not only had higher expectations for their performance but also achieved better scores on intelligence tasks. This improvement is attributed to a boost in perceived control and a stronger orientation towards achievement, suggesting that connecting with our ancestral past can empower us mentally (Fischer et al., 2010).

Deepening self-identity

Mary Pipher poignantly remarked, "If you don't know your history, if you don't know your family, who are you?" This question hints at the profound relationship between our family history and our sense of identity. Anna Lima, writing in the Journal of Cape Verdean Studies, supports this by noting that exploring one's family history enhances self-confidence, self-understanding, and the motivation for personal improvement (2019). Through the genogram exercise, individuals can gain insights into the diverse influences on their identity, inspiring them to honor their family legacy through self-betterment.

Fostering encouragement and learning

The stories of our ancestors, their successes, failures, and the lessons they offer, can be a source of motivation and wisdom. For instance, observing the financial progress of one's family over generations can be uplifting, serving as a reminder of the success stories we are part of. Conversely, recognizing the missteps and negative outcomes experienced by previous generations can provide valuable lessons, allowing us to learn from their experiences without enduring the same pitfalls ourselves (Lima, 2019).

Studying your genogram is not just an exercise in tracing your family tree; it's a journey into understanding the foundations of your identity, enhancing your intellectual capabilities, and learning from the past to forge a better future.

Creating your genogram: a step-by-step guide

Crafting a genogram allows you to dive deep into your family history, with the option to make it as straightforward or as intricate as you prefer. The depth of detail in your genogram can significantly enhance your ability to spot patterns and insights once you review the completed chart. While you can start with just a pen and paper, numerous online tools offer more sophisticated options for genogram creation. For a practical demonstration, you might find it useful to watch a tutorial video on genogram creation, which outlines the process and visual representation.

Key symbols and their meanings

For those new to genograms or if you're using this tool in a professional setting, such as executive coaching, understanding and using standard symbols is crucial. To ensure everyone in your group is on the same page, distributing a symbol chart can be extremely helpful, representing various family connections, health statuses, and personal attributes, serving as the building blocks of your genogram.

Remember, a genogram is more than a family tree; it's a visual encyclopedia of your family's generational narratives, capturing everything from relationships to personal challenges. Whether you're exploring on your own or incorporating genograms into group coaching sessions, these symbols will help you and your participants accurately map out familial relationships and patterns.

“When you know your why, you’ll know your way.” - Michael Hyatt

Creating your genogram

Creating a genogram involves several steps that allow you to visually map out your family relationships and patterns over generations. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you create a comprehensive genogram.

Step 1: Gather Information

Start by collecting as much information as possible about your family. This includes names, birthdates, death dates (if applicable), marriages, divorces, and significant health information. Talk to family members, look through family records, or use online genealogy resources.

Step 2: Choose Your Tools

You can create a genogram manually with paper and pencils or use specialized software or online tools designed for genogram creation. Software may offer more symbols and options to represent complex family dynamics.

Step 3: Draw Basic Structure

At the top of your page or canvas, start with the oldest known ancestors and work your way down to the current generation. This helps in organizing the structure and understanding familial relationships.

Step 4: Add Family Members

For each person, include siblings in birth order. Connect each family unit (parents and their children) with lines. Use solid lines for biological relationships and dashed lines for non-biological relationships (e.g., adoptions, stepchildren).

Step 5: Mark Significant Relationships and Events

Apply standard genogram symbols to mark marriages, divorces, and other significant relationships or events. Differentiate between male and female individuals with squares and circles, respectively.

Step 6: Indicate Health Information

Use specific symbols or annotations to note significant health issues, mental health conditions, or traits within your family. This can provide insights into genetic patterns or environmental influences.

Step 7: Analyze Patterns

Once your genogram is complete, analyze it for patterns or trends in relationships, health issues, or other significant aspects. This can offer valuable insights into family dynamics and influences on individual behaviors and health.

Step 8: Share and Discuss

Sharing your genogram with family members can help fill in gaps or correct inaccuracies. It can also foster discussions about family history and dynamics.

Step 9: Seek Professional Insight

If your genogram reveals patterns of mental health issues or if you're using it in a therapeutic context, consider discussing your findings with a healthcare professional or a therapist.

For the executive coach

Genograms offer a valuable resource in executive coaching, particularly for facilitating discussions within peer groups. However, it's crucial for executive coaches to recognize their professional boundaries: they are not trained mental health experts and thus are not equipped to handle discussions around past family trauma or mental health issues. Should such topics arise, it's imperative for coaches to refer their clients to qualified mental health professionals.

Within the appropriate scope, executive coaches can utilize genograms to enable clients to gain insights into how their family history influences their current career paths, behavior patterns, and belief systems. This reflective process can empower individuals to pursue personal growth, boost their self-confidence, and understand the underlying reasons for their actions and career choices.

By exploring the origins of their clients' behaviors, executive coaches can also gain deeper insights, aiding them in identifying potential mental or emotional obstacles that may hinder their clients' success. This approach not only enhances the coaching experience but also supports clients in their journey towards achieving their professional and personal goals.

The main takeaway

The genogram exercise offers a powerful tool for individuals, whether in a coaching session or a peer group setting, to explore their careers, behaviors, challenges, and family backgrounds. Through this activity, participants can enhance their self-confidence, foster a motivation for self-improvement, find encouragement, and potentially improve their performance. By incorporating genograms into peer group discussions and executive coaching, it allows for a deeper understanding of the reasons behind specific behaviors and beliefs. Furthermore, this exercise provides executive coaches with valuable insights into their clients' beliefs and behaviors, enabling them to tailor their coaching approaches more effectively to meet their clients' unique needs.

“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” -Alex Haley


Adamic, L., & Filiz, I. O. (2016, March 17). Do jobs run in families? Meta.

Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C., & Weisweiler, S. (2010). The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(1), 11–16.

GenoPro. (n.d.). Genogram Symbols - GenoPro.

JobList. (2021, September 21). The Impact of Parental Influence: Career Edition.

Levinson, D., & Nichols, W. (n.d.). Genetics of Brain Function. Stanford Medicine.

Lima, A. (2019). Family History and Genealogy: The Benefits for the Listener, the Storyteller and the Community. Virtual Commons - Bridgewater State University.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Nature vs. Nurture.

Stanger, M. (2019, October 1). 4 Effects Your Parents’ Relationship Has On You. Talkspace.

Tillman, Kristen, "Parental Influence on College Students’ Career Aspirations" (2015). University Honors Program Theses. 86.

Copyright © 2024 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.


bottom of page