Eye-blinking, throat-clearing, sniffing – your child’s odd tic is often just a passing phase. But many parents wonder how to distinguish whether their child’s habit is a sign of something more serious.
The majority of tics involve the head and shoulder areas and in some way relate to the five senses: the eyes blink or roll; the eyebrows raise; the nose wrinkles and sniffs; the hands touch, shake, or tap; the lips twitch or pucker; the tongue darts or licks; or the mouth grunts or sighs. At best, these habits are annoying, but at worst, they can be stigmatizing or even disabling.
10-20% of school-aged children will exhibit some form of transient tics. They are more common in boys than in girls. There is a known genetic component to tics, and they often run in families. Tics are experienced as a buildup of tension, a physical need that only goes away once the urge is satisfied. Luckily, the majority of tics are transient; they typically disappear on their own within a matter weeks. In fact, less than 1 percent of kids have Tourette’s Syndrome, a lifelong neurological disorder characterized by persistent tics.
Many parents are very alarmed when they first notice tics in their children. The onset may be sudden or dramatic, and parents are often concerned that their appearance signals a serious neurological issue. But in most cases, tics tend not to be very serious, and unless they are interfering with your child’s everyday life, they do not usually warrant intervention. In fact, the majority of tics are so subtle that they fly under the radar of everyone in the child’s life, including parents, teachers, and friends.
When and how to take action:
• If a tic significantly interferes with your child’s everyday life, lingers beyond several months, or if it increases significantly in frequency or intensity, see your pediatrician for an exam to rule out Tourette’s Syndrome.
• If you are not sure if your child’s movements are a tic or a seizure, see your pediatrician right away.
• Do not tell your child to stop ticcing or draw attention to it. When kids tic, they don’t know what they are doing and they cannot control it. Your calling attention to it can actually cause stress and make the tics worse. Try to ignore the tics. When you see it happening, remind yourself: This too shall pass.
• Find ways to decrease stress and tension at home. Exciting, fun events may aggravate tics, just as a big test at school may. Reduce stress by making your home a place where your child can totally relax and be himself. Many parents notice that their children’s tics decrease when they are relaxing watching a movie, listening to music, or concentrating while playing with Legos. So experiment with activities your child can find soothing.
• Avoid caffeine. Many parents report that eliminating caffeine and excess sugar from children’s diets and encouraging regular physical activity helps reduce tics. Why? Because caffeine is a stimulant and causes jitteriness, which can encourage tics. And exercise is a proven stress-reliever.
• Help your kids handle teasing. A tic can be a bully’s easy target. When a child realizes other kids noticing the tics, he gets the message that the tics are “bad” and that he’s bad for having them. To help your child deal with any bullying, suggest first that he ignore any teasing (giving bullies zero attention is usually the best policy). But if that doesn’t work, you can help him come up with a simple statement to use, such as “I don’t make that noise on purpose. My body does it on its own, like a hiccup or a sneeze. It’s no big deal.” Role-play different scenarios to help him practice confident responses. And remind your child that everyone has quirks.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist