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  • Writer's pictureJacob Priest

Genograms in Therapy: Addressing the Past to Improve the Present

How are events in the past, linked to problems in the present? Jacob B. Priest, author of The Science of Family Systems Theory, discusses his use of genograms in family therapy and the importance of knowing your community history.

This week, I got a text message from a friend. It was a picture of house a few blocks away from mine – it had been tagged with racist slurs. I walk past this house almost every time my wife and I take our 10-month-old son on a walk. Like many homes in my neighborhood, it a beautiful old home built in the early 1900s.

This home had been the feature of a story in this newspaper. Many homes from my neighborhood have been featured previously in this newspaper, and I’ve loved reading about them. These stories have detailed how these old homes have been restored but kept their early 1900s charm. But the story about this home was very different; it’s the story that reflects the racist history and present of my neighborhood.

As a family therapist, I often talk with clients about their families’ histories. When I do this, I use a tool called a genogram. A genogram is like a family tree – but instead of just birthdates and names – a genogram traces significant events and relationship patterns. These events and patterns – many of which have happened years before – contribute to the issues that bring my clients to therapy. Genograms help clients see how events in the past are linked to problems in the present.

Community History

Communities also have important histories that shape them – and these histories have powerful effects on the families that live in them. My neighborhood on the SE side of Cedar Rapids has a complex history – one of redlining and other racist policies and practices. The evidence of these policies can be seen on walks with my son – there are more Black Lives Matter signs than Black neighbors.

The reason I use genograms with clients is because their present often doesn’t change until they acknowledge, accept, and take responsibility for their family’s past. This can mean accepting painful things, talking about family secrets, or addressing how trauma has been passed down through generations. But when they do, they exhibit more energy to address their problems, have more authentic relationships, and have a sense of belonging and acceptance.

But no matter how much work I do with my clients in therapy, relationships only thrive when they are embedded in healthy communities -- communities where they can live free of fear, have access to stable housing, and be able to thrive, not only emotionally, but financially. In my neighborhood, like many across Eastern Iowa, this won’t happen until we acknowledge and take responsibility for the policies and practices that have led to our segregated communities.

So, how can we do this?

On a personal level, get to know all your neighbors – not just the ones that look like you, think like you, or act like you. And when your neighbors, especially your neighbors of color, tell you about negative experiences they had in your neighborhood, believe them.

Know your community history. Learn about the policies that have shaped who lives in your neighborhood and how these policies may have been motivated to give access to certain people over others. Don’t know where to start? Why not visit the African American Museum of Iowa in September – they will have a new exhibit about redlining in Iowa neighborhoods, including Cedar Rapids.

Finally, take responsibility for the part you play in this and seek to rectify it. That may mean attending a city council meeting, getting involved in a community organization, or by using your privilege to amplify voices that have been historically silenced.

Are you teaching family therapy? Request an inspection copy of The Science of Family Systems Theory. This accessible text examines how the science of autonomy and adaptation informs all family therapy approaches and discusses how clinicians can use this science to improve their practice.

Originally published on Routledge on June 4, 2021.

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