Common tic disorders in school-aged kids

Decoding facial twitches and other types of tics.

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By definition, tics are sudden, rapid, repetitive movements or vocal sounds. There are two different sorts of tics: motor and vocal. Motor tics include blinking, facial or upper body movements, and vocal tics involve throat clearing, coughing, squeaking and grunting.

While the exact cause of tics is still unclear, they are known to have a genetic and neurological basis. They’re not limited to anxious children, but symptoms can be aggravated by emotional or environmental factors such as anxiety, fatigue and stress.

“Some studies show when a father has a tic disorder, there’s a high chance his male child will develop it, too,” says Ellen B. Braaten, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. These twitches are three times more likely to show up in boys than girls, usually during the early school-aged years. Most of the time, they’re considered “transient,” and don’t require medical treatment or therapy.

“If they’re mild and have only been going on for a few weeks or months, and aren’t causing distress or interference, they’ll likely disappear,” says Gorman.

But for about two percent of children with tics, these movements don’t go away within a few weeks or months. If the vocal or motor tics last for more than a year, the child could have what’s called chronic tic disorder. A physician might prescribe behavioural therapy or medications if the tics are interfering with daily life or causing social disruptions. The majority of children with chronic tics — up to 90 percent — will outgrow it by age 18, says Gorman.

A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline, “What makes them tic” (p.82). For other discussions on school-aged kids’ topics, visit our community message boards!