The best treat for teenagers on Halloween? Some guidance

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

They're too old to beg for treats. But they're too young for grown-up parties and tricks.

What's a teenager to do on Halloween? With some help from parents, they could try on what is effectively a new costume: responsible adulthood.

Therapists and educators say parents can make a big difference in whether the night is full of happiness or horror for teens, who may not quite know what to do themselves.

"Give these kids a defined role," said Boston-based family therapist Carleton Kendrick.

Around 13, after officially becoming a teenager, children can start to feel like they're too old to go door to door and "extend their pumpkin next to a 4-year-old," he said.

So assign teens a specific task such as handing out candy at home, designing a spooky scene to scare trick-or-treaters or taking younger siblings around the neighborhood, he said. You not only help keep them out of trouble, but, "You really confer that 'older kids/adulthood' (feeling) on them that they really want to feel," Kendrick said.

Kit Bennett, a mother of four and founder of parenting Web Site, said that is just what she hopes to do with her youngest this year, who is 14.

"To me it's a more frightening period of time. You have to have something for those kids to do. The alternatives are more dangerous," said Bennett, who lives in upstate New York.

When her oldest children, now 27 and 26, were teens, she would have one stay home and answer the door while the other took the younger children out. She said they both loved to hand out candy and used to argue over who got that job. Now, with one child left at home, it's more of a challenge to find the right task for him.

Many teens just want to get together with friends, and that's not always bad.

Sticking with friends, particularly if your teen is still trick-or-treating, is ideal because there is safety in numbers, Kendrick said. But, as always, parents need to know their children and their children's friends.

Sally Chakwin, 14, of Norwalk, Conn., says she is planning to go out for candy with a group of 10 girls. They all plan to dress as Disney princesses. She said most of her classmates at Norwalk High School, where she is a freshman, still go trick-or-treating.

Kendrick advises parents to keep a hand in group activities. He suggested working with your child and with other parents to share the expense and hosting duties for a party. Then give the children some munchies, movies and music and let them be.

In many communities, advocacy groups or local officials are already wise to the issues Halloween holds for teens, and organize activities.

Newark, N.J., for example expects 3,000 kids to attend its citywide Halloween party, held at a recreation center. Activities are planned for all age levels, from tots to teens, and there will be plenty of candy to discourage kids from going out in the neighborhoods, said police spokesman Capt. Derek Glenn.

Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, holds an annual Halloween Spook-tacular, which is "all treats, no tricks." There are dance performances, a monster mash with a DJ, hay rides and hay mazes, as well as plenty of candy and activities geared more toward young children. Teens can also volunteer to help out with the event.

"We desperately try to include the teens because we absolutely know that's a night they want to go out and have fun," said Mary Jo DiSalvo, a community relations specialist with the Dublin Police Department.

The event, to be held Oct. 19 this year, doesn't replace trick-or-treating, which still takes place on Halloween in Dublin, but is limited to two hours, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Schools get into the act, too. Some high schools run campaigns to collect canned food for the needy, giving teens a chance to go trick-or-treating but also to do a good deed.

Kathleen Carter, 15, of Sterling, Va., will perform with her high school band in the Leesburg Halloween Parade, which will run late enough that she will miss trick-or-treating. She usually picks out her costume at the last minute but this year each section of the band (she plays the clarinet) will plan a costume theme.

Maybe surprisingly, one thing that doesn't seem to be much of a problem is Halloween crime from teen-agers at loose ends.

While national crime groups do not track crime based on the holiday, reports from some local police departments suggest petty crime has decreased.

Less tolerance for mischief leads residents to call police more quickly and, these days, charges are more likely to be filed, said Sgt. Dean Naddeo of the suburban Maplewood, N.J., Police Department. Maplewood increases street patrols in late October and that helps stop pranks before they start, he said.

"When you see six kids dressed in black from head to toe with their pockets full of something, you know there's going to be trouble," he said. There are still a few smashed pumpkins, eggs thrown at cars and houses, and toilet papering but "it's not that big of a deal."

In nearby Newark, it's much the same. Glenn, the police spokesman, said eggs and shaving cream are still a part of the holiday but it's more of a mischief than malice.

"You're going to find an occasional smashed pumpkin, but I do not find that the holiday causes a lot of problems for us," DiSalvo said.

Even so, it should go without saying that parents need monitor their kids that night and every night.

"You still have control. You can still say yes or no to things," Bennett said. "Parents need to be present during this holiday."

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