Tics and twitches: When to worry

In spite of living restrictions having been lifted to a more bearable level during Covid-19, life continues to be more than usually stressful for many of us – including our children. As a result, we are seeing youngsters with various symptoms of stress.

Stress, with accompanying anxiety, is one of the causes underlying the development of tics and twitches.  These include eye-blinking, throat clearing, small, repetitive movements of arms and legs, face pulling and sniffing. Some children may also make sounds. Other causes for the appearance of tics include the presence of toxins in the body and allergies.

While these signs can be alarming, remember that about 20% of children develop tics and show twitches at some point during the primary school years.  Most of them will disappear as the child grows older. 

Most children are not bothered by their tics and in these cases, parents shouldn’t bother either. It is important to remember that the child cannot easily control the tics and twitches so it doesn’t help to tell them to do so.  The best is to ignore the tics and while waiting and watching, try no interventions.  It will, however, be necessary to support the child if you suspect that stress brought about by the pandemic may be a reason.  Anxieties and the symptoms of stress can be helped through counselling or play therapy – and always, a parent on hand to listen carefully to fears and help talk through them.

On the other hand, if the tics become severe, persist longer than a year, threaten to disrupt the child’s social relationships or perhaps invoke self-injury, then you need to look for appropriate treatment.

The most severe form of a tic disorder is known as Tourette’s Syndrome.  This is possibly (but not always necessarily) a genetic condition and is often accompanied by co-occurring problems, such as difficulties paying attention, obsessive behaviours and anxiety.

Tourette’s Syndrome needs treatment which takes the form of either or both medications to reduce tics and also behavioural therapy.  Care needs to be taken that the child is not diagnosed and treated simply on the presence of motor and/or vocal tics. There are some neurodevelopmental issues that can present as an underlying cause and that need to be addressed along with the tics.  For this, it might be wise to consult a professional who will take an holistic view of the child and his or her development.


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