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Sexy little devils? Policing kids’ costumes

Worried that your child wants to show too much skin with her costume this Halloween? You're not alone. Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz explains how to rein in the oversexualization of the holiday.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It’s almost Halloween — a scary time of year, for sure. So today I will address the scarily unfortunate trend toward ultrasexy Halloween costumes.

It’s impossible not to notice that so many Halloween costumes scream “sex!” Costumes for girls around 8 and up all have the same cut — tight, short, with a cinched waist and accentuated bust. They show off midriff, cleavage and thigh.

Halloween, a holiday when people dress up, has long been a time when kids try on different identities, or even disguises. Some trends keep repeating for a reason. Little girls want to be princesses; little boys want to be policemen or firemen. These fantasies are appropriate for the developmental age.

Unfortunately, though, kids today are exposed to increasingly sexualized content at increasingly young ages. Teen idols are marketed not just to teens but to tweens and even younger children. And these idols are often valued not for their minds, ambition or character, but for their clothing, popularity and social machinations.

When it comes to the fantasy world of Halloween, those characteristics are intensified. Your daughter might like Hannah Montana, but the costume store doesn’t sell Hannah Montana — it sells a party version of her.

Studies show that the oversexualization of girls correlates with depression and eating disorders. Some girls are consumed with jockeying for social position, altering their looks and winning popularity contests. It consumes their emotional energy and makes them feel really bad about themselves.

I don’t suggest your daughter dress in a potato sack for Halloween. The holiday can be a fun opportunity to try on a new identity. It’s fine for kids to dress up crazy, funny or pretty. That doesn’t mean they need to be in-your-face sexy.

Here’s what parents can do to rein in the oversexualization of the holiday.

Keep an open dialogue with your kids
This shouldn’t be a one-shot discussion, but an ongoing conversation about what values are really important. If your daughter is desperate to send a sexual message with her costume, ask yourself what is really going on. Possibly she feels powerless and wants a way to stand out, or she is in with a fast crowd of girls who are influencing her. Address this now because at some point the peer pressure will be about more than a Halloween costume … it will be about alcohol, drugs and sex.

Take the blame If your kids feel peer pressure to dress more nakedly than they feel comfortable with, they might want your help. Encourage them to blame you and say they must cover up because their parents insist.

Negotiate the costume ahead of timeAgree on something that satisfies everyone. If your daughter wants to wear something short, tell her you hear what she wants and that you need to find a compromise between shortish and too short. You can sew lace or fabric around the bottom of a too-short skirt. Add a T-shirt or tank top underneath a bare top. Leggings can substitute for fishnets. The point is working toward a compromise where she feels you are thinking of her wishes but also setting a limit where she is going to show respect for herself.

Have some supervision Lots of overexcited kids, skimpy costumes and no adults around can definitely spell trouble. For younger kids, have an adult oversee their parties or trick-or-treating. For older kids, have someone pop in every hour or so. Have some way for your kid to contact you if they feel at all uncomfortable, and have a method to remove them from the situation if need be.

Think of creative costumes Help your kid to be really imaginative and fun with their costume, which can more than take the place of too sexy. There are plenty of appropriate but enjoyable themes that don’t involve being tarted up but are edgy or funny or clever in their own way. A kid who wishes to get noticed for their costume should gets lots of encouragement and reinforcement for using their mind to come up with something interesting or clever.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .