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  • Writer's pictureGreg Schoeneck

Dungeons & Dragons & Therapy with Justice Involved & At Risk Youth

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

What are the therapeutic applications of Table Top Role-Playing Games for therapy with At Risk and Justice Involved Young People?

Early in my career I worked at a residential facility with justice involved at risk young men, here in Milwaukee Wisconsin. It was a tough population to work with. They didn’t trust anyone, not me, not the staff, not each other. Learning on how to get through that was a hard. I didn’t have a lot of support as a new therapist and even more importantly I didn’t have the confidence to advocate for what I knew could be really helpful for these young me.

I did manage to start a game night. Team games, but just board games that gave these young people the opportunity to form teams and make connections and just have fun. I realized early on that a lot these young men had never really had the opportunity to just play to play. To just learn all the good things that play gives us without the additional expectations of parents or caregivers to be the next football or basketball star or to do things which they had learned to believe was exciting and / or fun but was actually quite dangerous and risky.

Game night grew. The boys loved it. First it was two teams of two and pretty soon it was six teams of two. There was buzz about game night fun competition for the sake of all the wonderful things that play brings.

But in the back of my mind I knew that if I could get these young men to play D&D it would be life changing for them. Play as a team of five or six toward heroic goals. Directly challenging belief systems, practicing emotional regulation within the moment, and improving executive functioning all while just having fun!

But that was the push back. Having FUN!?! How could we allow these “bad kids” these “criminals” to just have fun. I got push back for a couple games of Jenga and Operation once a week. How could I suggest we play a few hours of Dungeons & Dragons for these young men? So I didn’t.

Years later now I have had much experience in the juvenile justice system. I have a good understanding of trauma and developmental trauma due to my Neurosequental Model of Therapeutics (NMT) certification and am a Trauma Informed Care Trainer.

I know that for a fact that traditional therapy does not CAN NOT work for certain people. Especially people with significant histories of trauma, abuse, neglect, and developmental trauma. But we continue to ONLY provide these services for these young people along with classes to teach them emotional regulation, like DBT and classes to improve executive functioning. But most f these young people can’t get anything from these services either. They are too Dysregulated in these settings. For the same reason that they cannot get anything out of individual therapy it is doubly that when you place these young men in room with a group young people that they don’t feel safe around, taught in class by someone they don’t feel safe with, with high expectations of learning.

A couple years ago I was introduced to a “new” model of working with justice involved youth. Growth Focused Case Management. They were going to start working with youth by providing them with opportunities for growth developmentally. They idea had finally come across that these young people were developmentally behind and off track and needed to be exposed to experiences that could improve the deficits and help young people grow and expand their identities and possibilities for their lives.

I was excited! How could they do this for young people while they were in residential facilities? Most can’t leave much if at all for months. Here was my opportunity D&D for these young people could do all this and more for these young people and they wouldn’t have to go anywhere.

I reached out to the Growth Focused Case Management trainer and developer. He LOVED the idea. He has never head of table top role playing games, but after I talked to him he was onboard. He said you should email people and set up meeting and start talking about how this could work. So I did! Several agencies that work with these youth and Milwaukee County where these young people are held in detention for month and months without ever being able to leave.

And as of now, not even a response, nothing. Frustrating.

So here is the fun stuff. I still think this is such a good idea I would like to share my ideas with people and start an exchange of ideas around this.

First, I think this game could be D&D but I also think with this population and the model I am suggesting working from the perspective of a Super Hero TTRPG could be really great too. Maybe the Marvel Multiverse game. But the idea would need to be that the characters ARE HEROES they are expected to be heroes and to do good. I think this could be established by letting the characters be young heroes with a mentor who can guide them in what it means to be heroic.

Second, I think why I like a modern setting for this is I think it would be cool for it to be set in their own neighborhood with the people they know and even family members that they have to help. I think with this population there would be a lot of mileage out of them identifying as much as possible with the characters and their struggles. Either setting, I think you have to make a city setting with a criminal component.

Third, I think a story line of keeping friends and families from making mistakes and choices that the young people themselves have made. Slowing down time to help the team come up with solutions to the situations that maybe they have not mastered in realty with the support of their mentor if necessary.

Fourth, Let them make mistakes and feel the consequences of moving to fast. Finding ways to let them try again, but do something different. Often these young people just get stuck in the same behavior and ideas, over and over and over again. Thinking that they just need to get lucky or were unlucky last time but never changing their thinking or what they choose to do.

Fifth, Asking a lot about how that made their character felt / feels? This checking in with feelings is something that most people are not great at but this population is very not good at it. Practicing checking in on how their character feels is practice on not only checking in on their own feeling but also developing empathy for others. These things alone are HUGE and are so hard to do in a session or group with these young people. Asking what do you think he meant by that? What do you think he is thinking / feeling? Also powerful developmentally.

Sixth, Emotional regulation. You are there in the moment to help any of these young people manage emotions. Being mad, disappointed, hurt whatever the feeling is you are there to stop time and help the young person through those big feelings that come up when you roll your third 1 in a row and fall down. I think developing ways to support the rest of the team supporting the young person who is not doing well. What in game good stuff can happen when a team mate supports another team mate when they are struggling. Instead of talking trash, like is the typical response.

Seventh, HAVE FUN! Let these young people just have fun! Let them out of classes to participate once a week, buy pizza and soda for the event! Let these young people really soak in what just having good fun is like.

My ultimate hope would be to send each of these young people home with a player’s guide and maybe vote on who gets a Dungeon Master’s Guide and a Monster Manuel. Get these books into the hands of these young people so they can be nerds/ geeks and home and make their own games and rules and the join the nerd/ geek community.

In some places where young people so powerless, how much power is there in creating their own world and if they can do that what else could they do!?

In closing, I haven’t found a way to get these kinds of services funded for at-risk and justice involved young people, YET. But I will keep plugging along and I would love to talk with others about ideas and am happy to do some informal or formal supervision and / or consultations on how to provide these service for young people in programs.

Please feel free to connect with me through my web site The Therapeutic Workshop and take a look at some of the other ways I have been working to develop and utilize the framework of Dungeons & Dragons as well as other Table Top Role Playing game for; grief processing, anxiety / social anxiety, social skills building, depression, building connection, empowerment, and family therapy.


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