How to Use Your Teen’s Books to Tackle Tough Topics

by Denise Schipani

Photo credit: Marius Dollinger via Flickr CC

As a teen, I read Go Ask Alice more times than I can count. The fictional diary of a girl whose life ultimately spins out of control on drugs, it frankly scared the bejesus out of me. I read Judy Blume’s Deenie multiple times, too; the tale of a girl with scoliosis hit home as I watched my friend Kim get a back brace for that disorder and suffer the same humiliation and teasing as Deenie.

I was drawn to stories about kids who could be me, but weren’t, to stories of pain, confusion, depression, disorder, redemption. I always assumed that books like Go Ask Alice were cautionary tales for the cautious girl I was. And if my parents knew what I was reading, they never said.

But should you? Because these days, books for young adult readers that take on dark subjects – death and dying, depression, suicide, every disorder under the sun – are in heavy rotation. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is the standard-bearer for cancer-themed tearjerker, but there’s also a raft of suicide-themed books and stories of death and the afterlife such as If I Stay by Gayle Forman.

Reasonable people disagree on whether kids should be reading dark books, but the fact is that they are reading them, and are drawn to them probably precisely because these characters could be them, but are not. And if your kid is reading tough-subject books, you’re smart to use them as a gateway to that most difficult of parental challenges: talking to your teen. Here’s how.

Be direct: If your tween or teen seems intrigued by books with dark themes, ask, in an open and genuinely interested way, what about them she finds appealing, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a child psychologist and creator of a new video series for parents called Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.

Listen first: Before you jump in with your thoughts and opinions, listen; let your kid lead the conversation, says Kelly Jensen, a former youth-services librarian in Wisconsin who’s now associate editor and community manager for Book Riot.

Browse books together: Go to the library or bookstore with your child, and see what she’s checking out, says Jensen. Suggest you both read a title, and have a “book club” discussion some afternoon or evening. Bonus tip: Turn the book discussion into a special event, such as a lunch or dinner out.

Use the characters as a springboard: Talk about what a main character’s obstacles are and what s/he could have done differently, if anything, says Jensen.

Be patient: The truth is, sometimes children won’t want to talk with their parents about big issues, even if it’s through a book. It’s not necessarily because they’re avoiding their parents; it’s because they need the time to think through it themselves and wrestle with their own thoughts on their own terms.

Offer input: With the book as a jumping-off point, share your reactions to the characters or events. Tell them relevant stories from your teen years. Ask directly, “Have you ever felt like that?” You could also reassure your teen, “I would never react the way the mom in the book did! If you came to me with that issue, I’d … ” Just be careful, says Kennedy-Moore, to avoid preaching or criticizing your child’s taste.

Don’t overreact: For the vast majority of tweens and teens, reading dark books is not a cause for concern. “Strong emotions make engaging stories, and reading is a safe way to explore and imagine,” says Kennedy-Moore.