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Does My Child Have Tourette's?

“My 3rd grader blinks excessively. When she is tired or stressed, she gives her head a quick jerk over and over again. Before she started jerking her head, she used to shrug her shoulders all the time. She frequently clears her throat. Could this be Tourette’s?”

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This is a hypothetical question, but not an uncommon one. Up to 25 percent of children under the age of 18 will develop a childhood tic. Some common simple childhood tics:

  • shoulder shrugging

  • head jerking

  • eye blinking

  • jumping or kicking out legs

  • nose twitching

  • biting lips

  • vocal tics like sniffing, coughing and throat clearing

Complex tics are made up of a series of movements that look purposeful, such as scratching, hopping, throwing or repeatedly touching something.

A tic is often called an “unvoluntary” movement. Children may feel an urge to perform a tic before it happens, and tics can often be suppressed for a short period of time—only to “explode” later on. Sometimes children suppress tics while at school, then find themselves overcome by them upon arriving home.

Childhood tics look unusual and can be alarming to parents, but it’s important to note that most tics fade by adulthood and are not a symptom of an underlying disorder. In general, tics are evaluated by their duration, or how long they have been going on.

Tic disorders are three to four more times common in boys than in girls.

Transient tics are those that are short in duration, lasting a few weeks to a few months, often flaring during times of stress or excitement. The tics change frequently and can wax and wane. Children may spend time completely tic-free.

Chronic tics do not disappear and last at least a year. Children with chronic tics are never tic-free for more than two months at a time.

Tourette's syndrome is a complex tic disorder that can be debilitating. Its hallmark symptom is chronic motor and vocal tics. Tourette's is diagnosed based on the following criteria:

  1. Both motor and vocal tics are present, though not necessarily at the same time.

  2. Tics occur many times a day, every day, for at least a year, and the child is not tic-free for more than two months at a time.

  3. The tics cause the child distress and affect school work, social time and daily living.

  4. The child is under 18.

  5. The tics are not caused by another condition, such as drug use or any other condition.

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Less than 1 percent of children are affected by Tourette's syndrome, and it is not uncommon for children with Tourette’s to also have symptoms of ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Tic disorders are three to four times more common in boys than in girls, and most children with tics find that their symptoms have eased by adulthood. The cause is thought to be genetic.

Tic disorders should be brought up at your next pediatrician appointment, but in the case of transient tics the best course of action is nonchalance. The message that you want to send out to your child is this: “Sometimes kids get tics. You have tic, too. No big deal.” Research shows that it’s not the severity of tics that is a prognosis of a child’s future success, but that family support and feelings of self-worth are key.

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