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Tics & Tic Disorders

What is it?

Tics” are sudden movements or sounds that happen over and over again. Examples of common tics are throat-clearing or eye-blinking. They are not done on purpose and are very difficult or impossible to stop. Some people with tics are not aware they are doing them. Tics tend to go up and down in frequency, change over time, and may or may not stop on their own. Each person’s tic triggers (for example: things that make tics increase) are different. Some of the most common triggers are feeling tired or having intense feelings like anxiety, excitement, or anger. 

Tics are quite common in children – in fact, up to one in five children has experienced tics. Tics can be caused by a medical condition, may be a side effect of a medication or drug, or may happen on their own. They may also occur alongside mental health conditions. 

Tics can appear on their own or as part of a tic disorder. A tic disorder may be diagnosed if symptoms first appear before age 18 years and when other possible medical (or medication) causes for the symptoms have been ruled out. The most common types of tic disorders are described below: 

Tourette syndrome/disorder Multiple motor tics and 1 or more vocal tics for at least 1 year (may ebb and flow) 
Persistent motor or vocal tic disorder Vocal or motor tics for at least 1 year (may ebb and flow) 
Provisional tic disorder Vocal or motor tics for less than 1 year 


How do I know?

Tics most commonly first appear during the early elementary school years. Early tics generally affect head, face, and neck areas, but they can affect other areas as well. In children whose tics do not go away within the first year or so, the worst symptoms tend to happen when they are in the pre-teen and early teenage years. A lot of children eventually outgrow their tics, but some children will continue to have tics into adulthood.

What can be done?

Parents and caregivers should talk to a health professional if they think their child might have tics. If a child is found to have tics, experts agree that an important first step is for the child and family to learn accurate, science-based information about tics and tic disorders (for example: psychoeducation). Psychoeducation is all the intervention that some children need. If tics are not causing significant distress or getting in the way of day-to-day life, the best thing for everyone to do is to ignore them. 

If tics are causing significant difficulty, experts recommend comprehensive behavioural intervention for tics (CBIT) or habit reversal training (HRT) – which are evidence-based forms of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBIT (or HRT) can teach children and families effective skills to manage tics so they are not so bothersome. For severe tics, medication may be recommended.

Some – but not all – children with tics may experience other mental health challenges. For example, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more common among children with tics. Your health professional can help to figure out whether your child has any other concerns that should be addressed.  

Where to from here?

Talk to your child’s family doctor, paediatrician or psychiatrist first. They can assess your child’s symptoms and help you decide what to do about them.  They may recommend a “wait-and-watch” approach (to see if tics go away on their own), CBT (for example: CBIT or HRT), and/or medication.  

Looking for more information on this topic? Connect with a family peer support worker at the Kelty Centre to discover additional resources, learn more about support and treatment options, or just to find a listening ear.   

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