Family Trees – 1

6 Reasons to keep using them...

Sometimes the old ways are the best!

I reckon family trees are under-rated as a tool for helping us in our work with troubled kids. Here’s why…

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/tomertu

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/tomertu

6 Reasons we should keep using family tress…

Like most people, I find that I have phases for tools that I use in work.

Things come and go and the ones that we find most useful usually stick. Usually.

But occasionally we let something slip that we really should hang on to.

Family tress are just such a thing!

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Back to basics…

There was a time when family trees were all the rage. Then they waned. Then they came back… And on it goes.

For me, though, they’ve always been a winner.

Maybe it’s because some of us think in pictures rather than words or concepts. But I can absorb and analyse information much more easily if it’s in the form of a diagram.

Family trees are exactly that – a visual representation of a family.

Why we should keep using family trees:

I’m sure there are tons of reasons, but here are a few:

  • Seeing aids memory – as we’ve said, people think in different ways. But one thing is for sure for all of us: if we see something, we’re more likely to remember it than if we just read about it. Family trees capture key information about the kids we work with. This information is important to our decisions, assessments and intervention plans. Not to mention our conversations with the children themselves. If we can map all this in a family tree it’ll be a lot easier to remember it. Remember it and we’re onto a winner.
  • Attuned listening – when talking to children and young people, having the family tree (in our heads) means we’re able to quickly understand the links between the people the child may talk about. The family tree diagram itself can be a great way to help a young person tell us about their family, their past or what they are currently thinking. Drawing one up with a child can be a brilliant way to start off on a case and get their perspective – even if we know the information already.
  • Complexity simplified  – recently I’ve been reminded again just how convoluted and enmeshed some families are! A clear view of such families in the form of a diagram has a way of taming it somehow. A way of making it simpler. It also acts as an easy and quick reference guide if/when we want to check something out later on.

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  • Efficient communication – we all work in partnership with lots of colleagues from other agencies. Using a family tree as a way of focussing attention, relieves us of having to state and re-state basic information and frees us to get down to the stuff that really counts.

    Image courtesy of ©123rf/Borislav Marinic

    Image courtesy of ©123rf/Borislav Marinic

  • Context setting – regardless of the reasons for our involvement with a child or young person, there is always a bigger picture. Their family is the major part of that picture, whether they live there still, or not. A family tree on the front of the file (in our diary, briefcase, handbag or wherever) helps keep us mindful of this. Even though we may not have much to do with the wider family directly, the kids we work with will be very aware of them. Bearing this in mind keeps us empathic around this very sensitive area.
  • Child-centred practice – having a family tree at the centre of a discussion has a way of keeping everyone’s focus on what matters most – the child and their family. It can help keep us from being distracted into things that matter less! I’m a great believer in having a family tree out on the table for everyone to see and for the discussion to gather around; this keeps the child and their family central – literally!

How to make a family tree using a free Google app…

Below is a video I made as part my work for the YJB. But I thought it would be useful for you guys to have access to it.

It shows you how to use a free google app – LucidChart – to make a family tree.

It’s brilliantly easy to use and produces clear diagrams that are easy to edit, store, send and print.  Enjoy!

Check out my other videos here.

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Final word…

The use of family trees is still pretty widespread. That’s a good thing, in my view. But I think we could make even more use of them.

In a later post I’ll be suggesting a couple of ways we can be a bit more creative in our use of this old favourite…

What do you think?…

  • How do you use family trees? What are the advantages of using them in practice?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2016



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  • Diana Johns

    Hi Jonny, I agree, family trees are a great resource for engaging people in story-telling and retelling and discovery. And for connecting people to a sense of identity. And I think we can learn from both Australian Indigenous and New Zealand Maori ways of connecting to cultural identity using the family tree as a starting point. Let me explain…At the Australasian Youth Justice Conference last week in Brisbane (Australia), a strong theme about identity emerged and how we can help young people connect to their cultural identity. This is by asking three things: 1) Who are you? (Your people, your family, your ancestral ties); 2) Where are you from? (Your place, your country, your land, your environment); and 3) Who do you owe obligations to? (In Aboriginal terms, your ‘dreaming’, your stories, your responsibility to look after other people, places, animals, etc). Of course there are strong traditions and deep spiritual understandings that are unique to different cultures, but I think as a framework for grounding people in a sense of belonging to a group, a place, a community of care, it’s a really useful set of questions. I wonder how they could be used with young people in any setting. Even as a way of identifying functional ties with people, places etc (i.e. developing a new narrative) where connections may have been severed or dysfunctional. I’d love to know your thoughts? Hope you’re well! Diana @crimsonchat

    • Jonny

      Hi Diana, This is fab! I think it would be great to use these kinds of questions as part of a larger piece of work to help young people find or rediscover a sense of their own heritage or rootedness. Asking the questions that resonate is, I imagine, a good way of starting the process – like the notion of “dreaming” and “land” for indigenous people in Australia/NZ. They would make a good template for life story discussions for kids in care or who’ve been adopted, for example, too. Fascinating! All well here – busy busy! :0) Cheers Diana! J.