Tics in Children: Why They Happen and What Can be Done

tics in childrenHere it was – the dreaded math test.

And with it came the oh-so-familiar urge. He could feel it getting stronger. He tried to control it. Tried to hold it in. But it kept building, until he just couldn’t hold it back any longer… and he let it out.

His shoulders jerked several times. Relief washed over him.

A quick glance around. His worries were eased when he realized that nobody seemed to have noticed his unusual behavior.

The child in this scenario is dealing with a tic. Statistics show tics affect some 20% of school-aged children and most often occur in boys. Tics are short-lasting repetitive movements or sounds that cause interruption in normal behavior.

There are two types of tics – motor tics and vocal tics. They can include things like nose twitching, throat clearing, hand flapping, eye blinking, grunting, lip licking, frowning, sniffling, humming, coughing, and many more.

Tics are usually temporary, lasting no more than 3 months, but can also become chronic, going on for more than a year. A child can have one kind of tic for a while, then it goes away, only to develop another kind later.

As a concerned parent, you might wonder, “Why is this happening?”

Why Tics Happen

Children often develop tics when another condition already exists that functions as a trigger. Such things as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even allergies can contribute to a child developing tics. Also, situations that heighten anxiety, worries, and stress – like sleep deprivation, pressures in school, or someone close to them falling gravely ill or dying – can trigger tics or worsen them.

What You Can Do About Your Child’s Tics

Since most tics are temporary, doctors usually tell parents not to worry about them unless they become chronic* or severely debilitating. Despite their assurance, though, you might want to know what you can do to help your child cope with their tic while it exists.

Some of the simplest self-remedies you can make use of aim at not making the tic worse. Make these suggestions to your child:

  • Don’t focus on the tic or point out if your friend has one – both actions will make the tic worse.
  • Avoid stressful situations as much as possible – they only make the tic worse.
  • Get enough sleep – being tired only makes the tic worse.
  • Don’t hold the tic back when it wants to release. Let it out – trying to suppress it will only make the tic worse.

Professional treatments are meant to target the underlying condition that could be triggering the tics in the first place. Examples are:

  • Lifestyle Changes – Since stress causes tics to become increasingly severe, the goal is to make changes in your child’s lifestyle that help reduce their anxiety – such as relaxation, meditation, exercise, and sufficient sleep. Guided meditation has been shown to improve attention, anxiety levels, cognitive functions, and focus – all of which leads to emotional health benefits that can minimize the occurrence of tics.
  • Habit Reverse Conditioning (HRC) or Habit Reversal Therapy (HRT) – These types of behavioral therapy help your child to become more aware of situations that contribute to the occurrence of tics. They teach your child how to relax and what alternative behaviors they can use to replace their tic. While it normally takes about 2-3 months to see notable changes, these treatment methods can help to completely erase the tic.
  • Medication – Because their side effects can often be worse than the tic itself, doctors usually use medication as the last resort method. Sometimes, anti-hypertensive drugs (normally used to control blood pressure) have shown to be effective.

* In some cases, what seems to be chronic tics could actually be Tourette’s syndrome.