children tics

Children and Tics: What Parents Should Know

People of all ages can experience repeated involuntary movements called tics, but they are most prevalent in children. Nearly one quarter of all children experience this genetic disorder that becomes most visible in school-aged children.

Common motor and vocal tics include:

  • Blinking
  • Shoulder shrugs
  • Neck twitches
  • Throat clearing or sniffling
  • Coprolalia, involuntary and repetitively utters obscene words

All tics tend to wax and wane in severity and frequency. The tics themselves can also change over time, says Dr. Mary Zupanc, chair of neurology and the director of CHOC Children’s pediatric comprehensive epilepsy program. This means that a child with simple childhood tic disorder can have repetitive eye blinking during one point in time, and during another phase, can have irregular but repetitive shoulder shrugging, and later, intermittent head twitching.

children tics
Dr. Mary Zupanc

Childhood tic disorders are very common in young children. It is a “spectrum disorder,”  with some children having only intermittent, isolated tics, and having multiple motor and vocal tics. If these tics last greater than one year, the diagnosis is Tourette’s syndrome, which is simply a more severe form of childhood tic disorder.

Preserving Self Esteem

“Tics alone will not hurt a child, but we certainly want to preserve a child’s self-esteem, and not allow them to be embarrassed by their tics. Vocals tics can be especially problematic in the school setting,” says Dr. Zupanc. “Often times, the biggest treatment of tics is reassurance to the child and family, in addition to providing education on when it is appropriate to suppress a tic or not. Family and child counseling are often important, so that the child maintains his or her self-confidence.”

Treatment Options

Medication may be recommended in some severe cases. Pediatric psychologists who have training in behavioral modification can help children learn to suppress a specific tic.

Tics often disappear around the time of adolescence in many cases of childhood tic disorders and Tourette’s syndrome, although there may be concurrent co-occurring health challenges that are more problematic, Dr. Zupanc says. Learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder frequently appear in tandem with either childhood tic disorder or Tourette’s syndrome.  These co-morbidities may require medications for effective treatment.

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