Tics are repetitive movements that just happen, and are not within a child’s control. A child with tics might be able to delay them for a short while, just in the way that the rest of us can hold our breath and delay our breathing. Eventually our need to breathe will become overwhelming and automatic. This is similar to how tics overwhelm a child and cannot be suppressed for very long. So it is totally useless to expect a child to “stop” her tics. Tics accompany all kinds of syndromes and disorders, such as ADHD and OCD. If a child has a combination of two motor tics and one vocal tic, and if the tics have existed for more than a year, he or she will be diagnosed with Tourette syndrome.
When a child has overt tics it often makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know exactly how to respond to the child when the tics are happening. Should they divert their eyes? Pretend not to notice? Should they say something about the tics to the child? Teachers, neighbors, relatives, and friends can all be perplexed at what to do. Here are some guidelines for dealing with children who have tics:
1. Try to empathize. If you’d like an idea of what a child with tics feels like, try reading this blog as you occasionally tilt your head sharply to the side. Do this several times as you read. Imagine if this were your reality nearly every day of your life. Go into a public place and blurt out a word like “rotten” every six steps. Flap one of your arms on the side of your body as you walk through the mall. What’s that? You don’t want to do it? Imagine how you’d feel if you had no choice. By having empathy for the child, it’s less likely we’ll feel annoyed or critical of the behavior.
2. You don’t have to ignore the tics. Some people believe that the best thing to do is pretend they don’t see the tic happening. They’ll shift their gaze, turn their head, and say nothing about it. Sometimes this makes things even more awkward. The child with the tic knows very well that you can see what’s going on. By diverting your eyes or turning your head, you might send a message that you’re ashamed of him or her. It’s better just to have a gentle acknowledgement like a pat on the shoulder or a pause in the conversation. Asking a kind question about the tics can help the child see that you’re not passing judgment and are trying to understand. You could ask, “Is it frustrating sometimes?” or “When do you think it happens the most?” For some children, it’s a relief to occasionally be able to discuss the tics and have them calmly acknowledged. Of course, it’s not okay to insult, ridicule, or criticize the child, or insinuate that he or she is misbehaving.
3. Educate others about the child’s condition. Teachers should hold a special show and tell at the beginning of the year, where the child can talk about life with Tourette syndrome and introduce himself and his tics to the class. It’s hard for students to make fun of tics that are openly acknowledged by the child. The more educated peers are, the more readily the child will be accepted.
4. Be patient. Using your ability to empathize and your own understanding of tics, keep your cool. Don’t make statements like, “Would you quit doing that?” or “That is getting annoying.” Teachers should not instruct a child with tics to leave the classroom, because doing so seems punitive. Teachers should have a prior arrangement that the child can leave the room if tics become unbearable.
It’s important to remember that these kids have a genuine disability that not only causes embarrassment and isolation, but interferes with their education and ability to handle everyday tasks. It’s hard to brush your teeth, read a book, write a letter, or pour cereal when your body won’t behave. Showing these children (without being patronizing) that they matter and are loved is certainly the way any child would want to be treated.
Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.