Sexy Halloween costumes can be the scariest part of the holiday for parents.
When just last year you were chaperoning cute pirates and grinning ghosts door-to-door, it’s no wonder you’re bewildered when your teen insists on wearing devil horns and little else.
But how do you react when your kid wants to go as something you don’t think is appropriate?
Reflect on how you feel
It’s understandable that parents would feel worried about how their kids will be seen throughout the night, especially those raising daughters.
Girls are constantly marketed and exposed to sexual objectification in all forms of media, the American Psychological Association Task Force reports. This can lead to mimicking what they see, associating their value as people with being sexually attractive, developing a warped outlook on sex, and/or feeling unhappy with their appearance. In North America, girls of colour — especially Black girls — are often sexualized by others far sooner than their white peers.
But before launching into a lecture, it’s important to sift between how you feel in the moment and social conditioning.
Sexual health educator Nadine Thornhill sympathizes with parents in this situation. As the co-host of the web-series Sex-Ed School, Thornhill and researcher Eva Bloom try to have healthy dialogues about deep topics with kids.
Thornhill, who is a mother herself, says that feeling protective over how one’s daughter looks is natural, as even parents are inundated with messaging that suggests overt female sexuality is risky, invites trouble, and devalues the person.
WATCH: Five women try on ridiculous “sexy” Halloween costumes. Story continues below.
“If those feelings come up for you as a parent or caregiver I think it’s important to pause … because it’s really hard to undo a lifetime of social conditioning around sexuality and sexual thinking,” Thornhill says.
Reflecting on the costume in question and what exactly you want your kid to take away from the upcoming conversation are key to presenting sensible talking points; no one likes hearing “because I said so” or remarks that shame how they look.
Context is everything
Another thing to consider is whether the costume is actually sexy. Thornhill brings up how a little girl who loves Catwoman might want to dress up as her without any intention to appear sexualized.
Depending on where and who you are, the definition of what is a sexy costume can change. For example, young girls playing in mas bands at a Caribbean festival might wear costumes that show their limbs and stomachs. These aren’t meant to be seen as “sexy” outfits; rather, they’re seen as well-crafted apparel that fit the festival’s themes.
Thornhill, who is Carribean-Canadian, notes that in Barbados, Crop Over is a harvest holiday where merrymakers of all ages might wear bikinis and feathers to celebrate.
With that in mind, does the holiday of Halloween give the appropriate context for the costume? A parent can figure that out both before and during their conversation with their kid.
Ask about their reasoning
In response to a parent whose eight-year-old daughter wanted to wear a revealing costume, parenting author Susan Stiffelman explained that figuring out their child’s motivations can help make the conversation as productive and loving as possible.
“Make it safe for her to share what is fuelling her desire for that particular costume and resist the urge to interrupt as she offloads. Most importantly, don’t shame her for wanting to dress in a sexy costume; acknowledge what she’s feeling with care and kindness,” author Susan Stiffelman wrote for HuffPost.
Teens especially might have many reasons to wear a sexy costume. Some might want to fit in with their friends. Others are exploring how they express themselves and are curious about appearing sexually attractive, something that Thornhill says isn’t necessarily a bad thing for teens.
“In adolescence, it’s reasonable to explore sexuality,” Thornhill notes. ”‘What would it feel like for me to wear something more revealing ... and get that attention?’ Often times, teenagers have a better sense of boundaries than we think they do.”
Halloween can be a time for experimenting with expression. Kids might play with how they present their gender and dress in drag; for trans youth, the holiday can be a time where they can express their real gender in ways they aren’t afforded in everyday life.
On the other hand, kids and teens might have unhealthy motivations.
If the sexy costume feels more like a mandatory uniform in their clique, for example, that can be a chance to talk to your kid about peer pressure. Connect to them by sharing anecdotes from where you stood up to an unreasonable request from a friend.
Lay down your concerns
When a parent voices their concerns, it can be helpful to give kids time and space to answer each of them. If safety is on your mind, your teen might be able to allay your fears by staying in touch throughout the night, listing out their contacts, and staying with friends that you trust.
“In adolescence, it’s reasonable to explore sexuality ... Often times, teenagers have a better sense of boundaries than we think they do."”
Should the costume be revealing in ways that you aren’t comfortable with, it could be possible to compromise. Maybe they wear tights underneath a very short skirt, for example.
Ultimately you and your kid might agree that wearing the costume isn’t a good idea. This could be because they are younger than a teenager and the outfit isn’t age-appropriate. In these cases, Thornhill suggests still affirming to them that there’s nothing wrong with expressing one’s sexuality. That way, they won’t think they’re being punished for what they were motivated by.
“It is OK and normal to want people to find you attractive. It’s OK and normal to want attention from other people,” Thornhill says, as an example of what could be stated.
“We’re humans and we’re social creatures. We need attention, affection, and attraction.”
What to do if they get slut-shamed
Say your teen’s costume gets your stamp of approval. When they come back from the night, they’re upset: their outfit was met with jeers, rather than cheers.
It’s an unfortunate, but possible situation. Fellow kids and even adults can fall victim to the idea that wearing less means someone is worth less. “Slut-shaming” is a long-standing practice of belittling someone for how they express their sexuality.
At times like these, it’s very easy for a parent’s protective instinct to rear up again and make them react strongly. Before you do, think twice before telling you kid not to wear revealing clothes again or implying they “asked for it.” That’s the same mentality shared by those who made them feel badly in the first place.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to break down why people shame others for their appearance. Psychology Today Canada reports that when girls slut-shame other girls, it’s a misguided attempt to try and assert their social status over the other person.
Saying the right thing when your kid has been bullied can ensure they feel you are someone who they can open up to. Explaining that bullies’ beliefs aren’t based on fact could set your kid at ease. Other ways to support them include reiterating their value and that their body is not something to be ashamed of.
Harassment is unacceptable under any circumstances and reminding them of that can make sure they at least take away one sweet lesson from the holiday: that their parent loves and supports them, no matter what.