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The one thing you should never say to trick-or-treaters this Halloween

Trick-or-treat etiquette for grownups and kids this Halloween.
Close-Up Of Jack O Lanterns On Table During Halloween
How to deal with trick-or-treating problems before they arise.Erik Jonsson / EyeEm / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

It's almost time to trick-or-treat! While lots of kids are excited for Halloween some feel nervous about running through dark streets, ringing doorbells and asking strangers for candy.

For parents, too, the etiquette challenges of Halloween can be frightful. Here are rules to make sure everyone's spooky season goes smoothly.

When you're the one greeting trick-or-treaters

If you or your child doesn’t understand someone’s look, there’s a sensitive way to ask. Don't say "what are you?" or the dreaded "So, what are you supposed to be?"

According to Dr. Ali Griffith, an audiologist and speech pathologist, that's important when talking to kids with sensory problems whose costumes may have been adapted to their comfort.

“Say ‘Tell me about your costume’ instead of asking, ‘What are you?’” Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist and author of “Mommy Burnout,” told TODAY Parents. You don't want to indicate that you have no idea what a kid's costume is because they may have made it themselves. Instead, just ask them to talk about it. “Kids are proud to talk about their costumes.”

When you're out trick-or-treating

Trick-or-treating can be an exercise in good manners as well. “Saying ‘Trick or treat’ and ‘Thank you’ makes people feel good,” Ziegler noted. “Those giving candy are in the Halloween spirit and look forward to making small talk. It’s not a race.”

Older kids shouldn’t step around or trample littles in line. “Teach them patience now so they’ll know how to conduct themselves when they eventually trick-or-treat without adults,” she said.

"The weeks leading to Halloween are thrilling, however the holiday itself can be stressful for many children and families," Francyne Zeltser, the clinical director of psychology, training and special projects at Manhattan Psychology Group, PC, told TODAY Parents. "Unmet expectations can lead to disappointment and negative feelings."

When it's your first time trick-or-treating

A child's first trick-or-treating experience is a big deal, so prepare them by visiting fall festivals, decorating pumpkins, reading books about trick-or-treating or watching videos about Halloween, suggests Zeltser.

Or, introduce trick-or-treating with role play.

"Have your kid knock on your front door and say, 'Trick or treat' and 'Thank you for the candy,'" Zeltser told TODAY Parents, adding that practicing in costume will help identify any sensory issues early.

If your child is spooked by decorations, drive or walk by some adorned homes during the day. "You can explain that the decor is just a machine or doll," she said.

Then, on Halloween, trick-or-treat in a local area (around your block or within the school zone, for example) and limit the number of homes you visit: Zeltser suggests about five for a first-timer.

If you're passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, your child can help answer the door. "Even if they stand behind you or watch from the window, they can still experience trick-or-treating," said Zeltser.

When a child is neurodivergent

"For children who are anxious or on the autism spectrum, Halloween can be intimidating," Renae Beaumont, assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University, told TODAY Parents. "There are too many unknowns."

Costumes, for example, can be confusing, especially if your child has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, said Beaumont.

If you're meeting up with other families to trick-or-treat, Beaumont suggests asking others to remove their masks when greeting your child so he or she clearly understands the costume isn't real.

If you're answering the door for trick-or-treaters, consider wearing a not-too-scary costume or posting warning signs if your decor has bright lights or spooky sounds.

"It ruins the element of surprise, but you can still have a laugh without scaring children," Beaumont pointed out.

Some children have trouble understanding the viewpoint of others when sharing their thoughts, said Beaumont. If you're worried they won't accept candy graciously, create a script for them.

"For example, 'Thank you, I will save this for my friend' instead of 'Ew,'" said Beaumont.

According to Griffith, Halloween may also be difficult for children who are non-verbal and cannot say, "Trick of treat" or "Thank you" or for kids with developmental delays that may appear younger than their age.

A child with poor fine motor skills may not easily grab a piece of candy. So, people answering the door on Halloween may want to drop candy into children's hands or buckets instead of offering the bowl.

"Being observant and having an open heart can change how we look at people," Griffith tells

When a child has a food allergy

Show that your home is conscious of food allergies by participating in The Teal Pumpkin Project.

Teal-colored pumpkins signal that a home offers non-edible treats like stickers or toys along with candy.

Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, author of "The New Allergy Solution," suggests families make a plan for trick-or-treaters with food allergies.

Bassett said kids should accept candy in original packaging on which ingredients are listed.

Don't eat the candy out on the street, tempting as it may be: Wait until you're home so adults can examine it first.

And take labels seriously, he added, especially language like, "may contain nuts" or "made in a facility that contains nuts."

"Kids with allergies can also travel with safe snacks," he said. That way, parents can replenish their stash if they run out of options.

Griffith says some children may get disappointed while trick-or-treating, when presented with items they can't eat. If people giving out candy want to provide safer treats, purchase nut-free or dairy-free candy or stickers.

When your teen wants to trick-or-treat unsupervised

Halloween is an opportunity for responsible teens to trick-or-treat with their friends, instead of parents.

"It's a night for kids to have autonomy," Emily Kline, a Boston-based psychologist and author of the book "The School of Hard Talks," told TODAY Parents.

Kline recommends asking teens, "Where are you trick-or-treating?" "Who will you be with?" "What's your buddy system?" "What time are you coming home?" and importantly, "What are you most looking forward to?"

"You'll get the most leverage with your kid if you're excited as opposed to anxious," she explained.

Kline challenges parents to resist checking in with teens throughout the night, especially if they've already agreed on a plan.

"When kids reach an appropriate age to trick-or-treat alone, they've likely walked around the neighborhood alone during the day," Kline noted. “If they're allowed to use their judgement, they’ll become good at it."

When is a costume cultural appropriation?

Not every Halloween costume is a treat: Don't choose clothing that stereotypes or mocks someone's culture, traditions or race.

And if you see a costume that crosses boundaries? "Give that person the benefit of the doubt," Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist and author of "Mommy Burnout," told TODAY Parents. "They may not be trying to offend."

Related: 8 inappropriate Halloween costumes for kids that are scary for the wrong reasons

Parents need to be aware of how their child's costume could seem to others. If your kid's choice gives you a funny feeling, explore why. "You can also see if your child has a back-up idea," she suggested.

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