Tics (Twitches)

What are tics?

Tics are rapid, repeated muscle twitches, such as eye blinking, facial grimacing, forehead wrinkling, head turning, or shoulder shrugging. Most tics last only 1 second. Tics usually happen more often when a child is under stress. When a child is relaxed, he will not have as many tics. Also, tics do not occur when a child is sleeping. They are 3 times more common in boys than girls.

What is the cause?

The cause of tics is not completely known. Genetics and neurochemical differences may play the largest role. Tics can be made worse through the spilling over of emotional tension. Children do not do them on purpose. Children who have tics are usually normal, bright, and sensitive.

How long will they last?

If tics are ignored, they usually disappear in 2 months to 1 year. If extra effort is made to help your child relax, they usually improve more quickly. Even if the tics are not ignored and a child continues to feel stress or pressure, the tics usually improve or go away on their own during adolescence. About 3% of children with tics develop tics that cause problems during daily activities. In these cases, additional behavior therapy and sometimes medicine is needed.

How can I help my child?

  • Help your child relax in general and maintain self-esteem.

    Make sure your child has free time and fun time every day. If your child is overscheduled with activities, try to lighten the commitments. If your child is unduly self-critical, praise him more and remind him to be a good friend to himself.

  • Identify and remove specific environmental stresses.

    Whenever your child has a flurry of tics, write in a diary the date, time, and preceding event. From this diary, you should be able to identify when your child feels pressure. (Note: Your child should not know that you are keeping this diary.)

    In general, criticize your child less about grades, music lessons, sports, keeping his room clean, table manners, and so forth. Avoid stimulant medications (such as decongestants).

  • Ignore tics when they occur.

    When your child is having tics, don’t call his attention to them. Reminders imply that they are bothering you. If your child becomes worried about the tics, then every time they occur, the child will react with tension rather than acceptance. The tension in turn will trigger more tics. Don’t allow siblings or others to tease your child about the tics. Be sure that relatives, friends, and teachers also ignore the tics. When tics occur, people should focus on reducing any pressure they may be causing your child.

  • Don’t talk about tics when they are not occurring.

    Stop all family conversation about tics. The less said about them, the less your child will worry about them. If your child brings up the subject, say something reassuring, such as “eventually your face muscles will learn to relax and the tics will go away.”

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call during office hours if:

  • The tics interfere with friendships or studies at school.
  • The tics involve sounds, words, or profanity.
  • The tics involve coughing.
  • The tics involve parts of the body other than the head, face, or shoulders.
  • The tics become frequent (more than 10 each day).
  • The tics have lasted for more than a year.
  • The tics are not better after trying this program for 1 month.
  • You have other questions or concerns.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2006-03-02
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.

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