Have you ever seen anyone that has a tic? Not a tick, the little black insect that burrows under your skin, but body tics–brief, repeated movements or noises that a person makes. Very often tics are associated with Tourette’s Syndrome. Do you know what I’m talking about? Sometimes it can be mildly annoying to be beside someone that is always clearing their throat or squeezing their eyes shut, or it can be fascinating to watch someone continuously shrug their shoulders or rub their head or even blow on their hands. But if you don’t understand what’s happening, it can be very unnerving to watch someone go through a series of these movements or sounds.
Now imagine that person with the tics is your child. You don’t know why he does it, nor does he. You hear other kids talking about him, “What’s wrong with that kid’s eyes? Why is he doing that?” Then adults ask him directly if his eyes are tired or if needs glasses. You watch him shrug his shoulders or say, “I don’t know,” or in one case, you feel him lean against you as he hangs his head, just not knowing how to respond anymore.
And then, you walk him into his classroom for the first day of second grade. He’s told you he’s very excited, but also a little nervous. “That’s all completely normal, son. I always felt the same way, too.” Yet as the teacher greets everyone and you watch your son place his backpack in the appropriate place, you see his face. He’s blinking….constantly. He can’t stop. The blinking, the scrunching of his face, it’s continuous. It’s like a loop that he just can’t get out of. You know he’s nervous and inside, you are freaking out. You rub his shoulders as he finds his seat, telling him he’ll have a great day and to have a good time and you’ll see him at dinner that night. He only nods his head in reply. Then you walk very carefully as you leave the school, trying to keep it together. You climb into your car and try to take a deep breath, but you’re already crying. You have a blurry ride to work.
For several years, my son has had these occasional tics. I’ve always mentioned them at his doctor’s appointments, but I wasn’t overly concerned and neither was his doctor. I often thought it was just some bad habit he picked up somewhere. I tried to get him to *not* do whatever it was he was doing, whether it was the constant blinking, the shoulder shrug, the waving of the hands, the humming or the blowing on his hands. Last year his teacher commented on a few of the more disruptive ones (the humming/clearing of his throat in particular), but mostly no one seemed to notice. But this past summer, his eye blinking/tilting of his head became so obvious, that everyone mentioned it. And after that first day of school, I just couldn’t deny it anymore. I spent part of that morning looking up body tics in children, and what everything told me was that it appeared more in boys and in nearly 25% of the population.
Yet I really needed someone else, preferably a medical professional, to tell me that my son was really ok. And that he would grow out of it, hopefully, and he wouldn’t be ostracized by the other kids. That, in all honesty, was my main fear. Kids get a helluva lot meaner the older they get. They become less tolerant of any kind of difference. My boy is already a giant among kids his age and although he has certainly embraced his height, body tics are harder to accept.
At the doctor’s office, I told our physician what was going on. He already knew about the tics but I explained my concerns from the summer and the beginning of school. We talked about anxiety and stress and how it can aggravate tics more. He himself had a humming tic when he was in medical school. We talked about transient tic disorder, which is what it appears my boy has. Stress makes it worse, and for Bri, being tired also makes the tics increase and rotate. (During the first week at school, when we were reading just before bedtime, he would have 4 or 5 tics in a rotation for several minutes until he could finally settle down.) If things get worse, if the tics become so distracting to himself or to others in the classroom, then we can try medication. But until then, if the tics are not too bad, particularly on “normal” days (not during a stressful event) then we do nothing. We just wait it out. And in all likelihood, the doctor said, my son would grow out of this. It may not happen until he’s a teenager, but he still should grow out of it.
I will tell you that I was greatly relieved when I left that office. I know that it’s possible my boy will always have one or more of these tics for his entire life. (In fact, my husband has a little tic that most people don’t know about because it’s pretty minor, and he usually only does it when he’s stressed out.) And it’s also possible that he could develop more verbal tics and be the beginning of Tourette’s. I’m hoping it’s not. But you know what? Even if it is, I hope I can help him deal with it better than I have. I know now that I did everything wrong. Telling my kid to try to suppress these movements, makes them 10 times worse. If he did suppress them, he would get to the point where he’d nearly scream with frustration and tic even harder. I had him take deep breaths to try to slow them down at least, but that didn’t work either. “I just can’t help it, Mom,” he has said on many occasions. I didn’t believe him. I really did everything wrong.
Now I’m trying to do something right. My friend, Denise, a former special education teacher, suggested I give my boy a “line” he can say if someone asks, “What’s wrong with you?” I told him to just say, “It’s called a tic and it’s no big deal and *nothing* is wrong with me.”
And if that doesn’t work, I also signed him for Krav Maga lessons. So that might help, too.