How to Help a Child with Tics: Strategies for School and Home
Behavior therapy and medications help children manage tics, but support and understanding – from parents, teachers, friends, and other loved ones – is equally essential.
Supporting your child with a chronic tic disorder, including Tourette’s disorder, largely involves reducing the shame, anxiety, and other stressors that aggravate and reinforce tics. Helping others – like teachers, classmates, and family members – understand tics is also important to creating a helpful, supportive environment for your child.
Along with evidence-based treatments for tic disorders, like behavior therapy and medication, follow these strategies to uplift your child in school and at home.
How to Manage Tics at Home
Avoid Reacting to Tics
Even if it’s a “good” or “bad” reaction, drawing attention to tics in any way will reinforce and possibly aggravate them. Strive to create a tic-neutral environment as much as possible. That means ignoring tics as they happen (unless they post a safety issue). Instruct family, friends, and other loved ones to do the same.
Avoid Expressing Frustrations
Yes, having a child with a chronic condition increases stress for many parents. But showing your child that you are upset or worried about their tics will only make your child more sensitive and self-conscious about them. It’s important to manage those difficult feelings and ensure that they don’t influence interactions with your child.
Anticipate Tic Triggers
Tics may worsen while engaging in certain activities, social situations, and/or settings. For many children, tics worsen when they get home from school after a full day of possibly suppressing and masking. Watching television and playing video games is also a major tic aggravator.1
Teach Stress- and Anxiety-Management Strategies
Anxiety is incredibly common in children with tic disorders and linked to greater tic severity. Stress and worry are known to worsen and reinforce tics, even in children without co-occurring anxiety. Breathing exercises, mindfulness skills, and self-soothing activities (like the ones listed on this page) are great kid-friendly strategies.
Help Your Child Lead a Healthy Lifestyle
Ensure that your child stays mentally and physically busy. Pay special attention to sleep hygiene, as sleep problems are common in children with tic disorders.
The Tourette Association of America (TAA) and other organizations offer free resources for parents of children and teens with tic disorders. Their free “I Have TS” ID cards encourage self-advocacy and help others understand your child, especially in high-stress situations. Use their search tool to find a local TAA chapter or support group near you.
Don’t Let Tics Influence Your Expectations
Focus on your child’s strengths and positive attributes. Don’t stop your child from trying to reach their full potential. Tics should never be a reason to lower expectations for anyone.
How to Manage Tics in School
Talk to Teachers and School Staff About Your Child
Schools should understand that your child’s tics are uncontrollable and involuntary. They should strive to create a positive environment for your child, which often involves educating teachers, staff, and other students about tic disorders and instructing them to ignore tics. Your child has a right to feel safe and supported in school, so be sure to ask about the school’s bullying prevention policies. Refer to the following free resources from TAA to help you navigate conversations with the school:
- Classroom strategies and advice for parents of children of all grade levels
- For teachers: Understanding a Child with TS
- Tools for educators
Seek Accommodations and Interventions
Your child may qualify for specific supports and services in school if tics interfere with their learning. No two children with a tic disorder have the same needs, especially when we consider the effect of other commonly co-occurring conditions, like ADHD and anxiety, on learning. Be sure to work with the school to identify supports that work for your particular child.
- Consider the classroom seating arrangement. If being observed ticcing is stressful and distracting to your child, they might prefer to sit toward the back of the classroom, away from the view of other classmates. If ticcing itself distracts your child, they might benefit from sitting toward the front of the classroom to help them focus.
- Assistive tools (like speech-to-text software), alternative assignments, and extended time on assignments and tests can all help if tics interfere with reading and writing.
- Taking classroom breaks and having a designated, private space to tic may reduce your child’s stress (and fatigue from suppressing tics).
How to Help a Child with Tics: Next Steps
- Read: A Clinician’s Guide to Tic Disorders in Children
- Self-Test: Tic Disorders in Children
- Read: How to Treat Tic Disorders
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Current Guidelines for Treatment and Behavioral Interventions for Tourette Syndrome and Tic Disorders” [Video Replay & Podcast #422],” with John Piacentini, Ph.D., ABPP, which was broadcast on September 22, 2022.
1Himle, M. B., Capriotti, M. R., Hayes, L. P., Ramanujam, K., Scahill, L., Sukhodolsky, D. G., Wilhelm, S., Deckersbach, T., Peterson, A. L., Specht, M. W., Walkup, J. T., Chang, S., & Piacentini, J. (2014). Variables associated with tic exacerbation in children with chronic tic disorders. Behavior Modification, 38(2), 163–183. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145445514531016