Tics are repeated but involuntary muscle movements, so when they happen in children it may first appear that the child is acting out rather than the victim of uncontrollable movements. Tics are relatively common in school aged children, with an estimated one in 10 children in the United Kingdom experiencing a tic at some point in their school careers. Understanding common types of tics, behavioural problems associated with tics and how to help children cope with tics should help everyone involved better support children who experience tics.
Types of Tics
Tics tends to affect facial muscles, vocal muscles or the limbs. This means that actions like blinking, grimacing, wrinkling the nose, sticking out the tongue, head jerking, head banging, shoulder shrugging, grunting, coughing, barking, hissing, snorting, throat clearing, saying words and snapping fingers can all occur even when the child has no intention to do them. Many of these tics may be considered socially inappropriate, for example because the words that are said are swear words or because movements involve touching others. Generally tics are grouped into three broad categories, transient (lasting every day for at least a month but no longer than a year), chronic (lasting longer than one year, and no period of tic-free behaviour lasting longer than three months) or Tourette’s Syndrome (severe, chronic tics that involve vocal and several motor behaviours which appear intermittently for more than a year). Though perhaps the most widely known tic disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome is rare compared to other types of tics and is less likely to disappear as a child grows.
Behavioural Problems Associated With Tics
Children who suffer from tics may also suffer from associated behavioural problems. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are known to accompany Tourette’s Syndrome for many children but other types of behavioural issues accompany transient and chronic tics as well. Poor impulse control, hyperactivity, easily distracted, warning signs of obsessive behaviour and uninhibited speech and/or conduct have all been observed in children suffering from tics. Though there is no firm answer yet on whether or not such behaviour is officially linked to tics, and whether or not it is any more or less controllable than a tic, it is useful to know that this type of behaviour is not uncommon.
Helping Children Cope With Tics
If you are supporting a child who must cope with tics, first let him know that the tic is not his fault. Explain to him that science has already proven that the behaviour is uncontrollable and that he does not need to attempt to control it, and let him know that you will be advising the other adults in his life (teachers, coaches, club sponsors, etc) of this as well. Help him figure out how he best likes to cope with a tic when it happens, and what his plan will be for coping with a tic that becomes overwhelming when in public (looking for a rest room, leaving a classroom to stand in the hallway for a moment, etc). Reiterate that there is nothing to be ashamed of regarding a tic, but that if he prefers to be alone while feeling particularly out of control then this is fine. Never act embarrassed by a child’s tic, and encourage all children to view it is a natural occurrence as well. If the tic becomes more frequent, more severe, more upsetting or embarrassing to a child or seems to become the basis of other emotional or mental health issues then you should contact your GP to discuss the situation with your child.
Though tics are relatively common in school aged children they can still be upsetting for the children who suffer from them. Understanding different types of tics, behavioural problems associated with tics and how to help children cope with tics are all important for putting children at ease.