When Your Teen Wants to Dress a Little Too Risqué for Halloween

Joan Goodchild

With October upon us, that means most kids are going to be crafting a plan for what they want to be for Halloween. As children conjure up fun ideas for outfits to help them transform into a scary monster, or their favorite superhero, some moms may be navigating a more difficult situation with pre-teen and teenaged girls; in appropriate costumes.

Most parents are likely are familiar with the kind of outfits at issue here. The “bunny” costume that consists of skin-revealing clothing that looks like lingerie, with little more than a set of rabbit ears on the head to indicate its wearer is a bunny. Or the “hot pirate” costume, which entails a pirate outfit with a short skirt and low-cut neckline, hardly appropriate for swashbuckling, but that reveals plenty of leg and cleavage. These risqué or so-called “sexy” costumes for girls have become common choices at our local Halloween supply stories, and naturally it makes for an uncomfortable conversation for parents of girls who express an interest in dressing in them. 

School psychology professor Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts, Boston notes in an interview with USA Today that the concept of sexy Halloween costumes for teen and tween girls became particularly cool after the movie Mean Girls helped popularize it. 

“There's a line in the film, repeated by many girls, that Halloween is the one night a year you can (dress like) a slut,” said Lamb in the interview. “So there is this attitude that (sexy costumes) are the cool costumes.”

Dr. Jessica Griffin, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and Executive Director of the Child Trauma Training Center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said these kinds of provocative Halloween costumes marketed for youth are problematic.

“Kids really are in a difficult position nowadays, particularly pre-teens and adolescents with extraordinary pressure on them to look a certain way,” said Griffin. “Research has indicated that girls who consistently see themselves or other girls as sexual objects have higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem.”

So what is a concerned parent to do? Griffin notes your first step is not to overreact if you tween or teen is trying to convince you to allow them to wear a provocative outfit that you think is inappropriate.

“It is normal and natural for kids as they get older, to want to express their independence and autonomy and they may see Halloween as the one day of the year they get to really push the limits and act like a grown-up.  Again, this is normal! As pre-teens move into adolescence, they may experiment more with wanting to look ‘sexy,’ which is typical for adolescent development, but a landmine for parents.”

Start the sexy Halloween costume conversation from a rational place

Griffin advises parents to use the opportunity to have a conversation about age-appropriate dress. Remember, she said, Halloween is only one day, and the issue of highly-sexualized clothing for kids is a year-round issue in stores. This can be a chance to tackle an ongoing challenge.

“We need to not think of children as miniature adults, despite what outfits they may be selling at the stores,” said Griffin. “Before overreacting, take a deep breath and start the conversation with your child. Ask your child what kind of costume they want to wear and how do they want to feel? Something like, ‘Help me understand why you want to dress like _______.’ Ask them what their friends are wearing. They could also choose to have a silly or scary costume too. Also, remind them that they also want their costume to be comfortable.”

Griffin also said it is important that parents are on the same page, so talk with your spouse or partner about what you think an appropriate outfit or costume would be, and work together so that you offer a united front about the issue.  

Try saying “You look great, but we worry about the messages that sends to other people,” said Griffin. “For girls who may be dressing to try to get the attention of a boy, talk to them about what kind of relationship they want to have with boys and that by dressing in a certain way, they may not attract the type of loving relationship they want.”

For parents who simply cannot stomach the idea of their adolescent wearing a costume they deem inappropriate, a simple mantra may be, “That may be what other kids are doing in their homes, but in our house we don’t think that’s okay,” she said.

“Halloween is supposed to be fun,” said Griffin “At the end of the day, remind your kids that Halloween is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be scary and silly and a time when they get to be someone that they’re not.  However, that should not come at the expense of their personal values.”

Dos and Don’ts for tackling the risqué costume challenge

Dr. Griffin offers these suggestions for talking about and ultimately coming to a decision you can feel comfortable with on your child’s costume.

Do talk with your spouse or children’s other parent ahead of time to make sure you are on the same page and giving consistent messages.

Do remind your child that your number one job is to make sure they are safe and happy.  

Do acknowledge that there is a lot of pressure on your child to look a certain way, both by friends and by what they see on television or social media. Validate that this is hard for them.

Do pick your battles. Remember, this is one day a year. If their outfit raises an eyebrow but is not what you would consider “over the top,” then consider compromise.

Do use “I statements” instead of “You statements.” I understand that you want to wear that, and I’m sure it will look great on you but I feel worried about what message that may send. 

Don't underestimate the power of negotiation. I have no issues with parents who reward their children for choosing a better choice, in this case, the more appropriate outfit. Be transparent and say something like, “Hey, I know you really want to wear that. But, Mom and Dad are concerned that it will send the wrong message or that it’s too mature for you to wear – and you’ll have your whole adult life to wear outfits like that. We are not trying to be a pain and want you to be able to express yourself, but we have concerns. So, I’ll tell you what, if you choose a different outfit we both agree on, you can have a sleepover with your best friend this weekend (or some other appropriate reward).

Don’t shame your child by saying things such as “you looks slutty” or “you look trashy.”

Don’t ignore red flags. If your child shows signs of age-inappropriate sexual behavior, and is consistently acting in a “hypersexualized” manner, there may be more going on with him or her and it’s best to seek professional consultation. 

Don’t allow your child to go Halloween costume shopping without you. This is an opportunity to have some of these conversations. If they are older and want to go with their friends, offer to drive them.

Don’t forget about compromise. It’s possible for kids to find a costume they want to wear and then dress it down (e.g., wear sneakers and leggings with the outfit) so that it is not as provocative.