Tics: Part of Growing Up

Involuntary movements such as a shoulder shrug or nose twitch are more common than you think. In most cases, a tic appears, lasts for a few months and then goes away.

By Scott Westcott, published March 1, 2005 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

How common are tics during childhood?

Tics are so widespread that some experts say they are a normal part of growing up. About 20 percent of children will develop a tic—an involuntary movement such as a shoulder shrug or nose twitch. The most familiar tics are repeated eye-blinking or sniffing. "It's not uncommon for a child to start with a cold, and when the cold fades, sniffing persists and becomes a tic," says Jonathon Mink, head of child neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Tics may emerge as early as age 5, but onset peaks between the ages of 10 and 12. In most cases, a tic appears, lasts for a few months and then goes away on its own. A tic that persists for a year or more may be indicative of Tourette's syndrome (TS), a genetic disorder marked by repetitive body movements and vocal sounds. Boys are three to four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with TS.

So when should a parent worry? Although tics can be annoying and embarrassing, they are generally harmless, says Mink. Medication can help, as can "habit reversal therapy," in which a child learns to replace a tic with a less intrusive response. He might learn to take a deep breath, for example, whenever he feels the urge to cough.

Parents should seek treatment only when a tic is a real hindrance, Mink says. "I often tell parents: If your child's tic is bothering you, then go take a walk."