The Sin City actress explained that living in "a rat-infested squat" in New York allowed her family to be honest about difficult subjects like AIDS when she was a child.
"I have asked since, 'What in the world made them move two children into an abandoned building with no heat, no water and no electricity?'" The Sun quotes her as saying.
"The reason was that they could build their home around us, which was not something you could easily do in New York... We were very loving and close and it was a fun way of growing up. It also gave me an awareness of life and death.
"I knew about the risk of AIDS, for example, from the age of about six. I am of the generation that grew up with AIDS - just as the next generation had iPods and all they know is high-speed internet.
Dawson also praised her mother for inspiring her to put other people first.
"She taught me to care about issues and people," the actress recalled. "She would volunteer to work in crisis centres for women who had been beaten and abused.
"She also helped in a place called Housing Works, which was an organisation providing housing for families and homeless people living with AIDS. My mum inspired me to think and work for other people."
Dawson has recently been romantically linked to Danny Boyle, director of her new film Trance.