Therapy with Dragons: How Roleplaying Games Can Help with Social Skills, Problem-Solving, and Stress Management

by Alana H. Fondren, M.A.

DD Group

“You wake up in a forest clearing. You have no memory of how you got there. As you sit up and look around, you see three other individuals who also seem just as clueless and dazed as you. You reach down to your belt, but you realize your sword is gone. In fact, neither you nor your companions seem to have any weapons of any kind. In the middle of the clearing, you notice a wooden chest with a large lock. What do you do next?”

I know what you’re thinking. Dungeons and Dragons? That’s a board game, isn’t it? How does rolling dice and pretending to fight monsters help with managing stress or improving relationships? You may be surprised to learn that Dungeons and Dragons (or “D&D” for short) can be used as a therapeutic tool and outlet for a variety of domains, including communication, problem-solving, assertiveness, emotion management, handling unpredictability, and perspective-taking. How, you may ask? Well, it’s more than just magic…



 But first, a little history!

Dungeons and Dragons was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Back in the day, it was restricted to a mail-order instruction pamphlet and a set of dice. While the game increased modestly in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, it did not hit the mainstream until it slipped into popular shows such as Futurama, Big Bang Theory, and, most recently, Netflix’s smash hit series, Stranger Things. As of 2018, the developers of D&D reported record sales, which are only projected to increase over the coming years. Celebrities such as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, John C. Reilly, Tim Duncan, Jon Favreau, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Drew Barrymore, Aubrey Plaza, Anderson Cooper, Mike Meyers, and even the late Robin Williams have all professed their love for the game. More than ever, players young and old are exploring dungeons and slaying dragons through this open-ended game of shared storytelling.

But what sets D&D apart from other games? And, more importantly, what makes it a useful tool in therapy?

D&D requires imagination or “theater of the mind.”

 Dungeons and Dragons isn’t like your typical board game. While you can use maps, figurines, and other accessories to enhance your playing experience, these aspects are all optional and not required. In truth, all you really need is a sheet of paper, something to write with, and a set of dice (In fact, these days, you might not even need the dice! There’s an app you can download on most major smartphone devices that will simulate dice for you). The players can create their characters based on a variety of choices. They select their race, class, alignment, and even personality traits. It is fully customizable, and the only limits are the players’ imaginations.

The dungeon master (or “DM” for short) sets the stage by providing a variety of settings, scenarios, and encounters for the players to navigate. The DM will offer an assortment of choices, and it is up to the players to negotiate with one another to decide what they want to do and how they want to do it. But the true magic of this process involves the storytelling aspects of the game. It is up to the DM to describe the environment in as much detail as possible – from the bumps of the cobblestone streets, to the smell of smoke wafting through the air, to the sounds of swords clashing in the distance. Likewise, it is up to the players to describe how they react. This encourages players to be playful, creative, fun, and flexible with their choices. D&D enables players to travel to faraway lands, face fantastical foes, and accomplish amazing feats, all without having to leave the comfort of air conditioning!

D&D allows for exploration in a safe space.

 Roleplay and imaginative exercises are common tools in “traditional” therapy. By working through an imagined problem, it provides an opportunity to practice desired skills in a safe environment without fear of certain consequences. The same is true for Dungeons and Dragons. Playing D&D lets players try out things that may be hard for them to accomplish in the real world.

Say, for example, you want to be better at asserting yourself to bullies. In the real world, there may be consequences to this, and it may be a little too scary. In Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, the Dungeon Master can provide opportunities for players to stand up for themselves without the fear of real retaliation. Players can practice using a clear and strong voice, concisely communicating their needs, and standing their ground against monsters. Players will also have opportunities to pause and consult resources, whether that’s a guidebook, a magic item granted by the DM, or even fellow players. By gaining this imagined exposure to scary situations, players may feel empowered when they encounter similar situations in real life.

 D&D isn’t about winning or losing – it’s about teamwork!

 Dungeons and Dragons isn’t like traditional games in the sense that you are competing with other players to be the best. Quite the opposite, actually! Success in D&D comes from relying on your fellow players and learning how to cooperate with them. This may be a little difficult at first, especially as players are getting to know one another through their characters. The DM can facilitate communication by asking questions, inviting players to share, and pressing “pause” on interactions to process conflicts and promote interpersonal awareness. Each character has different abilities that are learned and used by working together. Team-building is the name of the game.

In a sense, therapeutic D&D can be similar to group therapy. It consists of people dealing with similar problems who are sitting together and supporting one another. Only by utilizing key social skills like compromising, perspective-taking, and conflict resolution can the players hope to move forward in the story. It’s about being present in the moment and accomplishing goals and tasks through togetherness and, ultimately, fun!

 D&D deals with tough stuff.

 Dungeons and Dragons may be about fun and games, but it can also tackle tough themes. The Dungeon Master can choose to incorporate all kinds of heavy subject matter as a way to expose the players to new ways of thinking. Because D&D is purely imaginary, it is an ideal space to confront complex and uncomfortable emotions. Sadness, loss, loneliness, and even trauma can be explored through characters’ backstories or interactions created by the DM. In fact, these techniques have been used to help specific populations, such as veterans who are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, or individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder who feel deeply isolated from others.

One example from one of my previous D&D games involved a character finding out that his father had been killed in battle. The players (and the characters) had tackle the feelings of outrage, disbelief, anger, and grief in real-time. Although the loss was pretend, it was clear the player was deeply impacted by these emotions. It was also a powerful and moving experience to see how the characters comforted one another and helped them move through the mourning process. Through these experiences, players are able to learn how to navigate painful encounters, while perhaps even processing their own painful pasts.

 D&D leads to greater understanding about yourself.

 Ultimately, D&D gives players an opportunity to explore new aspects of identity – who you are, who you wish you could be, your strengths and weaknesses, your hopes and fears. Pretending allows us to escape in a way that facilitates learning something new – about your friends and about yourself. Aspects of real life inevitably begin to emerge in the game, and it is up to the DM to process these experiences in a therapeutic way. Players can place pieces of themselves in their characters, or they can create someone completely different than who they are in real life. Either way, D&D gives the players a chance to try new things and discover new facets of their identity. Sometimes it takes becoming a hero in a game to feel strong enough to become the hero of your own story.

If you would like to learn more about the Dungeons and Dragons Social Skills Group we are conducting at NTX Counseling Associates, click here! We are also in the process of recruiting for an Adult D&D Social Skills Group – call us at 817-281-6822 to learn more!

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If you are interested in learning more about Dungeons and Dragons, as well as how it can be used therapeutically, check out these links:




How to be “Unbullyable”

How to be _Unbullyable_

As a parent and a counselor for children, one of my biggest fears as my oldest entered kindergarten this year was that she would encounter the dreaded “bully”.  Growing up, we have all experienced that child, but somehow, it’s different when it’s your child preparing to enter a world that you have very little power or influence over.  Unfortunately, my precious girl inherited my qualities of being very caring and compassionate coupled with extreme sensitivity.  I am definitely experiencing a taste of what my mom felt raising a sensitive kiddo.  While these are wonderful qualities, they can make dealing with a “bully” that much more challenging.  My husband on the other hand has always been remarkably unbullyable.  Negativity and the harsh judgment from others do not faze him and never really have.  As you might imagine, this absolutely baffles my mind.  I kept thinking there must be something to it, some method or way of teaching what is so incredibly innate in him.  Turns out, there is!  And it can work for grownups too.  So, it’s not too late for anyone.

In my research of the word, “unbullyable” I stumbled upon Sue Anderson and her brilliant work.  She is a speaker, trainer, coach, and author located in Australia.  She wrote a book of the same name, “Unbullyable”.  She originally began helping children who had experienced bullying at school through coaching.  This eventually

41s1gUZNVeLtranslated into her work with helping the bully to improve relationship functioning, emotion regulation, and behaviors.  It helps to start with the source and I wish there were more local programs that focused on this side of the work.

My absolute favorite takeaway from Ms. Anderson’s work is what she calls, The “Four Powers”.  These powers enable a child to reclaim control of his or her thoughts, feelings, actions, and words specifically with regard to bullies.  This translates so beautifully into how we would like our children to approach life in general.  I love how she describes helping the child “stubbornly refuse to be affected by bullying attempts toward them”.  Ms. Anderson describes the “Four Powers” as follows: 

“We have the ability to control what we think, how we feel, what we say and what we do”.  This mindset helps the child feel a sense of power and control.  Both words are generally associated more with the bully than the individual on the other end.  Long term benefits of individuals using this method involve strategies similar to mindfulness training and neuro-semantics.    

Remove the power unbalance:  We all tend to view those that bully others as being in a position of power over the chosen target.  This is really actually a perception of power based upon physical size, socioeconomic status, popularity, or role. Now there are times when this is absolutely the case as in workplace bullying by a supervisor or boss.  Most of the time however, it is someone who may be the exact same age/grade with no authority whatsoever over the target.

Decrease blaming and increase acceptance of responsibility: By taking control of our “Four Powers” we take out of the equation the tendency or desire to blame someone else.  This is helpful in assisting the child with becoming the “unbullyable” one because they are focusing more on what is theirs to manage vs. what someone else has done or not done to them.    

After learning about this approach to bullies, I couldn’t help but think about super heroes and their special powers and abilities.  So, that is how I now approach that dialogue with my daughter and my clients.  I encourage them to picture themselves as super heroes with super powers.   I even recommend that they draw themselves as the superhero with their special ability being the “Four Powers”.  It is so empowering, I mean who doesn’t want to picture themselves as a powerful super hero in the face of adversity.  Adults too can benefit from being intentional about using their personal powers to take back control from individual who is attempting to take it away.  What we think, what we feel, what we do, and what we say are powers that someone can only take away if we allow them to.

Four Powers YouTube video

The Power to Choose What You Think YouTube video:

Bailey Circle Written by Bailey McAdams M.Ed., LPC


My teen must be faking, right?


As parents, we try to ensure we do what is best for our children. As they grow we try to lead them, teach them, and mold them into young people that can think for themselves and make good decisions so that when the time comes for them to go out on their own, they have the tools they need to succeed.

It can be difficult if your once so called “perfectly healthy and happy” child suddenly starts having problems with sadness or anxiety. You may ask yourself questions like: What went wrong? Was it something I did or didn’t do? Is my child making this up? Are they making these issues into more than it really is?

Placing blame or assuming that your adolescent is just looking for attention is easier than facing that your child may have a problem that is deeper than you can fix with a quick conversation at home. If your adolescent experienced a traumatic event in their lives, if they have gone through or are going through puberty and hormones are kicking in, if genetics are a role, and sometimes for no known reason your teenager can begin to suffer from depression and or anxiety. It is not your fault, but it’s also not your adolescent’s fault. There is no blame to be placed here, only help to be sought.

If your adolescent starts exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety such as depressed mood or irritability, loss of interest in activities, fatigue or loss of energy, change in sleep patterns, change in activity, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, decreased ability to think or concentrate, thoughts of suicide or suicidal ideas or a plan, excessive worry or anxiety about several different things and the worry is hard to control, edginess, trouble with relationships (friends, teachers, parents), and/or intrusive thoughts it is time to call for an appointment with a counselor. Please do not delay, the longer you wait the more severe the depression and/or anxiety can become.

It is not uncommon for depression and anxiety to go hand in hand. So if you or your adolescent notice several from both categories it is possible that they are dealing with


both things. Sometimes the severity of the depression and/or anxiety can be overwhelming for a parent to see in their adolescent making them feel that surely they must be looking for attention or making up some of the problems. Unfortunately, in most cases this is not true. Many adolescents suffer from severe depression/anxiety and it takes a lot of time and hard work to get them to a place where they are able to cope and live their lives in a happier place.

Parents please don’t ignore the signs and symptoms or your own intuition about your teens. If your teen comes to you and mentions feelings such as those listed above please listen and get them the help they need. Also, please don’t forget that we are here for you and your teen when you are ready for the next step.


Anne CircleAnne Wiggs, MA LPC-Intern
Supervised by Jennie Fincher, Ph.D, LPC-S


My Give a Darn is Busted


I am burned out, I don’t know what is going on but I’m frustrated and angry when people ask me for help. I just want to be left alone. These are just a few of the things that one may be experiencing when they have compassion fatigue. Who gets compassion fatigue? I mean, it doesn’t even sound real right? On the contrary, it is known that people who have caregiver roles and/or jobs are at risk.

Compassion fatigue occurs as a result of working in a field such as medicine, 9-1-1, police, among others and as a result of taking care of a family member who is unable to care for themselves. It is likely that people who are drawn to working care giving jobs could have compassion fatigue already. Many people have spent their lives as people compassion2pleasers and care more about helping others than taking care of themselves. You may be the person your friends run to when they experience upsetting events and need to vent or get some advice. This is great until those events become enmeshed in your brain and you suddenly can’t stop thinking about that horrible event that your friend described that happened to them, or that other event that your other friend told you about that evoked some strong emotions, oh and don’t forget when your other friend told you about that traumatic experience and you stayed up for hours with them trying to make them feel better. As caretakers, we tend to deny ourselves any kind of helpful self-care. Some symptoms include burnout, isolation, excessive complaining about admin decisions, drug/alcohol use, preoccupied, trouble concentrating, and more.

For 9-1-1 operators, EMTs, and Police compassion fatigue is very common. These people spend all week seeing people in traumatic and emergent situations, helping people who are having emergencies, and talking to people at the worst moments of their lives. After time one may notice they start using defense mechanisms so that these events “don’t bother them”.

take-care-of-yourself-263x300What do I do if I think I have compassion fatigue? Own it, realize that if you think you are suffering from it, you likely are. Talk to others who understand the things you deal with on a daily basis. Know your limitations and remember to practice self-care. Remember family is great but may not understand what you are going through. Do not use drinking, drugs, etc. to make yourself feel better. Do not ignore the symptoms and let it go until you have a psychological break down. Do ask for help from a professional if you need it!

Our FREE gift to you! Click here for a FREE download of 10 Easy Coping Techniques

Anne Circle Written by Anne Wiggs, MA, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Jennie Fincher, Ph.D., LPC-S


Stop for a second – it’s OKAY.

Stop, Breath & Restart

Recently, my precious 2 ½ year old gave me a real test of patience.  I’m not entirely sure that I would say I passed that test with flying colors.  Allow me to explain…

On this particularly beautiful day, my sweet child decided that going through the front door of the house was far preferable than going in through the garage.  She made this choice as we were already walking into the house through the garage, and she was alerting me to this at a full-volume scream.  Now, I’m coming off a long day myself, not feeling very good, and my husband was away on business.  (Basically, already not my best day.)  I decided to humor her and walked through the house to the front door and took her out on the porch to then enter the house form the front.  WRONG.  Somehow, this only made it worse.  Now I have the screaming banshee on the front porch for the whole neighborhood to enjoy my parenting skills.

Oh, and now she is refusing to come inside.

At this point, it’s possible that I may or may not have uttered a few words that I am now thankful she isn’t repeating.  I picked her up and brought her into the house, shut the door, and took her into the kitchen.  She is still mid-meltdown.  And now, I am, too.  So what great parenting thing did I do next?  I actually put my hands on my head and screamed “WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO??”  So now we are both in the kitchen crying, and neither of us knows what to do.  It’s not my shining moment.

Here’s what I am proud of, though:  I walked away.  (Wait, what?)  Yes, I walked away.  I sat in a chair (within eyesight of my kiddo) and gave myself a minute to cry and catch my breath.  Believe it or not, it helped.

So after maybe 2 minutes of taking some deep breaths and calming myself, I walked back over to my child, who is laying on the floor crying.  I put my hand on her back and asked her to sit up, but I used my very best Calm Mommy voice.  She did, and she let me pick her up.  I sat her on the counter so we could be eye to eye.  And then I told her I was sorry I yelled.  I told her I thought we both felt frustrated and that sometimes mommy feels that way, just like she does.  Then I told her how much I loved her and how no matter how frustrated I felt, I always love her.  Then I wiped her tears, I wiped my tears, and I asked her if I could give her a big bear hug.  (She let me, and it was awesome!)  And then we made chicken nuggets for dinner and we had a really good evening.

So here’s what I want to point out about this:  It’s okay for you to get upset!  Parenting is tough, and you have to do it even when you don’t feel good, or are tired, or just want to have the night off.  But when you feel that way, you can model something important for your precious pumpkin.  You can show them it’s okay to stop and take a moment to collect yourself before you react in a way you wish you hadn’t.  I had a lot of guilt about my reaction at first.  And then I felt pretty good about what I did.  I taught her to stop and check in with herself.  And I held myself accountable.  I turned it around.  And when I brought myself back down, she was able to match what I was doing.  And then we both felt better!

So stop and take a second when you need it!  It’s okay!

Walk away and collect yourself (make sure your little one is safe, though). When you do this, you help both of you.  And you might end up with a surprisingly amazing night!

jennifer-circle Written by Jennifer Willis, MA, LPC- Intern
                                     Supervised by Jennie Fincher, Ph.D, LPC-S