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Are tics in children common?

March 29, 2023

A group of school children lay in a circle, smiling.

Whether it’s a frequent shoulder shrug or throat clearing that happens a little too often, many parents wonder about repetitive movements and sounds their children can’t seem to control. And they are not alone: an estimated 20 percent of children will develop a temporary tic.

Susan Scherer, MD, a pediatrician with Atlantic Health System, shares more about what parents should know about tics in children.

What is a tic?

Tics are typically sudden, quick and repetitive involuntary movements or sounds. Tics often first appear in children between the ages of six and eight and then taper off around puberty. They tend to be more common in boys and run in families.

Tics can be motor or vocal and simple or complex. Many children have just one tic, while others have a combination of tics. Symptoms can come and go over time and one tic can switch to another.

Examples of motor tics:

  • Shoulder shrugging
  • Head jerking
  • Excessive blinking
  • Unusual mouth movements
  • Nose scrunching

Vocal tics might include:

  • Clicking
  • Throat clearing
  • Grunting
  • Coughing
  • Sniffing

“Of course, everyone does some of these things occasionally. But when you see a child doing them repeatedly, it could be a tic,” says Dr. Scherer. “Sometimes patients go to the eye doctor for increased blinking, and it turns out to be a tic, rather than a vision problem.”

When to seek care

Dr. Scherer stresses that any time a parent is concerned about their child’s health or behavior they should bring it to the attention of their pediatrician, and tics are no exception.

“Tics are typically not worrisome, but we want to work with parents to accurately diagnose them and help manage them if they’re bothersome to the child” says Dr. Scherer.

Many parents are concerned about Tourette Syndrome, a disorder that involves a combination of motor and vocal tics that are present for a least one year. Dr. Scherer says most children have transient tics that resolve within a year and are not diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.

Treatments for tics

Generally, tics are more severe when a child is tired, anxious, stressed or excited. Parents can help children keep their stress levels low and make sure they get a good night’s sleep. Tics can be subtle, and Dr. Scherer says many young children don’t know they have a tic unless a parent or caregiver brings attention to it. Talking about the tic repeatedly and pressuring the child to stop the tic behavior may increase their anxiety and make tics worse, so she usually recommends not calling attention to it.

Comprehensive behavioral intervention for tics may be a helpful treatment option for some kids with persistent tics.

There isn’t a way to prevent tics in most cases, but the good news is that most children will see tics fade away without treatment. A supportive environment at home and at school, along with time, is all some kids need.

“For many children, their tic is not bothersome and is something they outgrow” says Dr. Scherer.

Be Proactive About Your Health

Tics in children are more common than most people realize, and most resolve on their own.  Any time a parent is concerned about their child’s health or behavior they should bring it to the attention of their pediatrician.