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Those Crazy Tics (& I'm Not Talking About the Ones That Bite)

Ron Mueck's "boy" photo by Adriaan Bloem @

I know a bunch of 10-12 year old kids who, for whatever reason, have developed these funky, little quirks. One friend’s daughter mashes her teeth together in an oddly rhythmic way: three light taps and a grind-slide that, to my ears, sounds about as delightful as fingernails on the chalkboard. Another friend’s daughter  developed this nervous throat-clearing thing which then morphed into a full-blown frequent cough. For a while, my son was making this bizarre “blooping” sound. I don’t even know how he discovered that he could make such a sound, but he began to do it so suddenly one night that I actually got up to check to see if the kitchen tap was dripping.

Years ago, when my now ultra cool, college-aged nephew was younger, he went through an awkward phase where he grimaced and twitched a little bit, and now I know at least two other 11-year old boys who possess these same twitchy-twitches. One frequently touches his ear; the other prefers to touch his nose.

These kinds of “tensional outlets” (as teachers call them) are not uncommon in children, and I’m told the best thing to do is ignore them, but it can be challenging to let your cougher-twitcher-bruxer live and let live. Truth be told, none of these behaviors seem to bother any of the kids within the peer group. In fact, most of the times,  friends are as oblivious to the tics as the kids with the tics are unaware that they are doing anything that could be perceived as weird or annoying.

For a time, it was thought that these strange little habits were a sign of an anxious child: the nail-biting, the hair-twirling, the teeth clicking, but research has shown that tensional outlets show a patterned progression with change and age. Basic physiological outlets like stomach aches and headaches, and even the more overt outlets such as grimacing and excessive movements involving the whole body that are characteristic of ten, eleven and twelve year-olds become less constant as children age. And of course, most outgrow these little idiosyncrasies completely in due time.

So if your littlun starts up with some strange little behavior, do your best remain calm: he will likely soon outgrow it, and soon find another way to drive you nuts!

6 thoughts on “Those Crazy Tics (& I'm Not Talking About the Ones That Bite)

  1. My nephew (nine years old) developed some tics when his family moved across country, but they have since diminished. I always thought tics were stress-related…but now I’m learning that they can be just part of child development in some children. Or is it the stress of developing??!!

    Do some people never get rid of their tics?

  2. Interesting….I wasn’t aware of “tensional outlets” that manifested like “tics”. We’ve been through hair twisting, stomach aches (took us 3 years and a whole lot of medicine to realize that the problems were anxiety based–not body based). Thanks for sharing–it’s nice to know that sometimes, a tic is just a tic.

    But, I need to say this for any other parents whose kids might be reading this…..always trust your intuition, and if a tic or movement seems to go beyond what a parent might feel is normal, get things checked out.

    Maybe I”m a bit oversensitive, as I have a son with epilepsy, but tics–from throat clearing, grimacing, funky sounds, teeth mashing, coughs, twitching, ear touches, tiny muscle jerks–all can be signs of myoclonic seizures or adolescent onset tourettes. And 10-14, as the hormones in the body whack out, is prime time for onset of both tourettes and myoclonic epilepsy.

    Not that we should jump on every silly little thing our kids do and worry (please–who has the time???), but, just remember to keep an eye out, and if you as the parent think that maybe this is a bit more than just a nervous habit, best to rule out all the odds of something else going on.

    1. So true! I did not mean to minimize the subject! I was trying to say that plenty of kids show some kind of “tensional outlet” and that it is perfectly normal. My understanding is that those kinds of traits usually come and go – appear as quickly as they disappear – and usually disappear by the time kids are 14; however you are right: if you have that in your gut feeling that something isn’t right, best to go and see the pediatrician! Great point, Jen!

  3. Things That Make You Go Hmmm…

    I like the term ‘tensional outlet’ for two reasons; 1) because ‘tic’ is a clinical term and used for diagnostic purposes, 2) because it describes whats going on, the underlying cause.

    I read what you’re describing as tension-based, unmindful gestures that if brought to kid’s attention they can easily and comfortably stop for the moment. A tic is really challenging to stop.

    Having said all that I think the question is….why are our kids so tense? How about some yoga & meditation? I can’t describe ‘tension outlets’ I’ve seen over the years with my kid (she’d kill me) but they do often abate on their own. For anything particularly annoying to live with for the parent or child – finding a replacement behavior may help. I.E., tapping fingers can use a ball to squeeze, things like that.

    I agree with Jen, listen to your intuition…your intuition doesn’t lead you wrong. And ask a question: “How big of an impact is this ‘behavior’ making in the child’s/the family’s life?” Is it impacting their functioning in the world?

  4. My beautiful grandson started with tics when he was two. Now at age four he still has some. I am so worried. Going online to do research is not always the best thing to do!

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