We want our children to enjoy dressing up and trick-or-treating as much as possible. However, Halloween has become an increasingly adult holiday, and you can see it reflected in the costumes marketed to children. A lot of parents have real concerns about the appropriateness of Halloween costumes, which are more sexualized and violent than in the past. Fortunately, I think it’s possible to help your child pick a creative costume that is still developmentally appropriate. As with many parenting challenges, the secret to success lies is in strong communication and setting clear expectations. Here are some tips:

Costumes don’t need to be sexy

If you look around stores, a lot of the girls’ Halloween costumes are very sexualized. Of course this is a trend in girls’ clothing everywhere, but it’s even more apparent during Halloween, when the skirts get shorter, the necklines get lower, and a tween who refuses to make her bed suddenly wants to be a French maid. I’ve seen everything from sexy cat costumes to sexy SpongeBob SquarePants.

This may be because some consider Halloween a day when they get a free pass to dress however they want. Adults have the capacity to better understand the choices they make, while children may be choosing a costume simply because it’s what everyone else is doing. They might not be thinking about the ramifications of their choices. And the stakes are particularly high now that many of our actions are documented (and broadcast) on social networking sites.

Letting kids wear sexually provocative costumes sends the message that it’s normal for girls to dress like women and exhibit adult sexuality. Parents should be doing their best to counteract that idea. If you have concerns that your daughter has chosen an inappropriate costume, you should absolutely have a conversation explaining why you feel that way. This is as an opportunity for you to share your values. It’s possible that your daughter might not be aware of how inappropriate the costume is. Or she might have her heart set on being a vampire, but there might not be any non-sexy options at the store. Try to look for ways to make an adjustment to the costume. If the skirt is too short she can wear a different skirt, or add leggings. As parents our goal is to encourage kids to express their creativity and have fun, but in a way that is appropriate.

Avoid Freddy Krueger

Many parents worry that costumes are too violent and gory for children, particularly the younger ones. To offset this trend some parents — and even some schools — have started encouraging kids to only wear what they consider “positive costumes,” like animals or some popular television characters. While I understand their motives, from a child development perspective I don’t think that an appropriate costume needs to be a happy, smiley thing. It’s fine for a child to be a villain from his favorite movie, for example and still be appropriate.

Parents of younger children have it easier because they can edit costume choices to a much greater extent. It’s harder with older kids who have more firm ideas about what they like and what they want. Again, I think this comes back to communicating your values to your children and setting limits. If you aren’t comfortable with a costume, explain why it isn’t appropriate.

For example some parents don’t want their kids carrying weapons as part of a costume. There are plenty of parents who will let a child dress up like Captain America or some other superhero, but won’t let him carry the gun because in their family they don’t use guns. That’s a reasonable limit to set, and a lot of schools forbid fake weapons in school anyway. Other families don’t care if a weapon is part of the costume, which is completely their choice. Dressing like a pirate and carrying a sword won’t turn your child into a criminal, but it can give you a great opportunity to discuss your values with your child.

Trick-or-treating

For very young children who are just starting to go out and knock on people’s doors, limiting their access to really frightening images is important. Some kids might not be too impacted by a violent costume — gory images have become fairly commonplace on television — but the costumes older kids wear can be scary sometimes. Luckily, younger kids often go trick-or-treating earlier and may not see these costumes as much. If you notice that your child is frightened by a costume, remind him that what he’s seeing might look real, but it’s actually just a costume.