You probably know them as nervous tics: repetitive shoulder shrugging, nose wrinkling, head twitching, throat clearing, eye blinking and more. And when your child suddenly starts doing one, it can be cause for concern.

A common occurrence

“I tend to use the terms ‘motor tics’ or even ‘habits’ because I think ‘nervous tics’ suggest there’s something wrong with the child and implies an anxiety disorder of some kind when tics are actually very common,” said Dr. Scott Spies of Novant Health Matthews Children’s Clinic .

“Tics, by definition, are involuntary, brief (usually less than one second) motor movements that can happen anywhere from 10 to 100 times a day,” Spies said. “They occur in approximately 20 percent of children at some point, and most occur between the ages of 6 and 10, typically affecting boys more than girls, 3-to-1.”

Tics do occur during sleep, which is one clue that the repetitive behavior a parent may notice in a child is a tic and not something else, Spies said.

A 'vicious cycle'

Spies admitted that while “nervous tic” may not be the most apt term to use, it doesn’t mean that stress isn’t part of the equation. “Tics tend to be a good barometer of stress in kids,” Spies said. “I encourage parents to use a child’s tic as a gauge for when to back off and take it easy on them.”

He added: “Many times it’s hard to know if you’re doing too much parenting or discipline, and this is an obvious time to back off if you see tics increasing. It’s a balance.”

The biggest key is to downplay tics with your child, Spies said. “The more you talk about a child’s tics, the worst it gets, typically. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “The vast majority of tics in kids will go away in just a few months; it’s very rare to see it go on more than a year, and even then most go away completely. It doesn’t last forever and it isn’t debilitating.”

When to be concerned

Spies said parents should consult a pediatrician anytime tics last longer than a year, start to involve vocal tics, or cause bullying in school or extreme distress to the parent or child.

“Medications are available to help children with multiple tics that last longer than a year, but are typically reserved as a last option,” he said. “Certain medications, especially those for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are widely known to increase tics so that is a balancing act when it comes to some children.”

Overall, Spies noted that “most kids with tics are very normal, bright sensitive children. The fact that tics go away if you generally ignore them should be very reassuring to parents that there’s nothing worrisome going on or that their children will be ostracized.”

“The less you focus on tics, the better off children are,” Spies said, adding that parents should never punish children for tics, which are out of a child’s control.