When is a "twitch" something to worry about?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 25, 2009 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

We all want our child to fit in, to be accepted by peers, to be happy and healthy. So when we perceive that a behavior might interfere with social acceptance, what is our job? To intervene and possibly upset and even interfere with development? To take a laissez-faire attitude with the obvious risk that it won't disappear on its own?

Question: When my healthy 4-year-old daughter is very happy or excited, she reacts with a 3-4 second physical "twitch" - she puts her head down and swirls her fingers and arms around and scrunches up her shoulders. She has done this since she was a baby and does it many times every day.

My husband thinks that this behavior was OK when she was a toddler, but now she must learn to stop it, because it will result in others making fun of her and thinking strangely of her as she ages.

He feels it is our responsibility to get her to stop this now, and his approach is to speak strongly or even yell at her when he sees her doing it. I personally love to see my little girl in a happy way and hate to transform that to a conflicted moment, so up until now, I have ignored the behavior. My questions are: Do these behaviors typically go away by themselves? If we do try to get her to stop this behavior, what is the best and most effective approach? She gets very upset when my husband yells at her for this, and she has said that she doesn't want to change the behavior.

I'm very torn and hope you have some good insights!

From: BethJo, Malden

Hi BethJo,

Your husband is right; kids can get teased for idiosyncratic behaviors. He may be a bit premature in his concerns, however. Preschoolers typically are not put off by each other’s so-called nervous habits which, by the way, are not typically caused by nervousness; they really are a way for a child to self-comfort. In fact, preschoolers probably don’t even these behaviors in each other; they’re too ego-centric.

By school-age, almost anything that sets a child apart from his/her peers gets noticed and sometimes – sometimes – that can be a source of teasing.

Since your daughter is only 4, I suggest you both stop commenting on it altogether. Yelling at her, drawing attention to it, etc., are shaming and humiliating to her and, as such, inappropriate. The typical preschooler’s habit will disappear on its own once the child reaches a new stage of maturity and is able to identify the behavior as “babyish.” Your daughter is likely to get to that point developmentally in a year or so, but it will happen faster if you stop talking about it.

With school-age children, a nervous habit typically will disappear only if the child herself wants to stop it and, unfortunately, that’s most likely to happen as a result of natural consequences, such as being teased. That means leaving things to follow its own course and that can be hard for you, as parents. You can point the habit out to her in an informational kind of way -- "When I was a kid, someone who picked his lip would be teased. Does that happen to you?'' – but that’s about as far as I would go, other than to offer support ("Do you want me to point out to you when you do it?'') and offer coping mechanisms (chewing gum; carrying paper in his pocket and marking it every time he notices someone noticing him picking).

There are three other things to consider:

1) If this habit is something your husband really can’t tolerate – if it is sabotaging his ability to be with her, for instance, (and it sounds like it’s verging on that ) – he needs to find a way to deal with it., either by excusing himself in an unobtrusive way or learning to zip his lip. If it was an offensive behavior (knuckle cracking, say), he could handle it in a matter-of-fact, non-punitive way: “That noise ruins our meal. If you can’t stop doing it at dinner, please leave the table.” But her show of happiness doesn’t exactly qualify.

2) Professional help is in order if: you think there’s a medical component (hair-twirling can turn into hair pulling, which is a serious medical problem; picked fingers can get infected); if it’s a tic (motor tics are not something children can control); or if it’s verging on obsessive-compulsive behavior (a 5-year-old who taps his fingers during story time has a habit that may be disturbing to others, but that's all it is. If he interrupts his play to rush to a spot in the room to tap on the floor, he could be moving along a continuum.) In any of these cases, consult with your pediatrician.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Your daughter is only 4. Back off and give it time.

A book that you may find helpful: "Is it a big problem or a little problem?" by Amy Egan, Amy Freedman, Judi Greenberg & Sharon Anderson

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

5 comments so far...
  1. This is a trifle off topic, but why to parents put so much emphasis on 'fitting in'? When I mention that, for a variety of reasons, we have no TV, the first thing everyone asks is "Don't your kids watch (name a kids show)? Don't their friends think they are weird? Aren't they going to be social pariahs?" Um, no. Actually, they have friends, and they talk to them about other stuff quite happily. Sometimes kids do have habits that need to change. Either they will get sick of being teased and change them, or they will decide they don't care what others say and be themselves.

    Parents spend all this time making sure that their kids have and do everything their classmates have and do. But then, when it comes time for high school peer pressure, and we want them to resist drugs, sex, and alcohol, we wonder why they go along with the herd. Maybe what we should be doing is encouraging all kids to respect others and enjoy being who they are. Maybe the teasers and bullies should have to change, not the kids who happen to be a little different.

    Posted by BMS June 25, 09 02:15 PM
  1. My 11-year-old son does something similar to the LW's daughter. We call is "secret squirrel" because he looks like a squirrel who is hatching an evil plot. He does it when he is excited about something, or sometimes when just sitting and thinking about something. My in-laws are great...they actually came up with the name and it's sort of an inside family joke that we all openly "do the secet squirrel" when we get excited about something. I think the fact that the habit is out in the open helps my son to relax and laugh about it instead of feeling ashamed about something that he doesn't even know he's doing. I was afraid that he would get teased in school but it hasn't been an issue so far. He swears up and down that he doesn't even do it in school but when I ask his teachers, they remember seeing it but it hasn't been a big deal. I have heard a friend or two ask about it when he's done it at our house and he's just said "oh I do it when I'm excited and I don't even know it...we call it secret squirrel" and that's that. When we notice it, we just say "hey secret squirrel" or "hey SS" and he catches himself and stops. I imagine that it's just something he'll have to outgrow at some point - our early attempts at "making" him stop were stressful and counterproductive, so we just don't make a big deal out of it.

    Posted by Jen June 25, 09 05:54 PM
  1. As a formerly twitchy child and now a twitchy adult, I can sympathize with your daughter. Even when I wanted too, I couldn't stop my twitches. They have come and gone throughout my life. Holding something in my pocket, rubber bands on my wrist, sticker charts, constant nagging did not work. In fact, anything that drew my attention to the ticks frequently made them worse.

    Yes, children can be exceedingly cruel. At some point other kids will notice and probably tease. I know your husband means well, but drawing attention to it--and negative attention--will probably only make it worse...and/or alienate your daughter.


    Posted by Twitchy but productive member of society June 25, 09 09:30 PM
  1. I read a terrific article, "The Parents We Mean to Be" that discussed how parents often unintentionally harm their children by worrying about whether or not a child is "happy." I do not mean to undermine the happiness of our children as an important part of life, but many times children and people learn and grow through failure, suffering, and unfortunately, sometimes teasing. I am a mother of a 3 year old who has a slight twitch and I was very bothered by it because I was afraid she would be teased when she entered school. But then, I remembered that everyone gets teased at some point in their lives and I would rather teach her how to cope with it when she faces it rather than avoid it all costs. Although it has been hard for me to let go and ignore it sometimes we have to let developmental issues take their course...I hope that I can help my child learn the most valuable lessons in life which may not always provide happiness.

    Posted by AMH June 25, 09 10:12 PM
  1. In light of AMH's nice insight I thought I would add something.

    I was teased mercilessly as a child and feel that it was a large part in making me the strong, secure adult I am today. Somewhere along the line I came to understand that bullying and teasing had very little to do with me and everything to do with the teaser. I am responsible for my own actions and behaviors, they are responsible for theirs. I think I am a more empathetic adult because I was teased so badly. I also have the inner strength to realize that

    1) someone can only treat you as poorly as you allow them to
    2) no matter how poorly someone treats you, it is a reflection on them and not on you
    3) Happiness is completely self-generated. No one person or thing can make you happy.

    Posted by twitchy but productive (and happy) member of society June 26, 09 10:58 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. This is a trifle off topic, but why to parents put so much emphasis on 'fitting in'? When I mention that, for a variety of reasons, we have no TV, the first thing everyone asks is "Don't your kids watch (name a kids show)? Don't their friends think they are weird? Aren't they going to be social pariahs?" Um, no. Actually, they have friends, and they talk to them about other stuff quite happily. Sometimes kids do have habits that need to change. Either they will get sick of being teased and change them, or they will decide they don't care what others say and be themselves.

    Parents spend all this time making sure that their kids have and do everything their classmates have and do. But then, when it comes time for high school peer pressure, and we want them to resist drugs, sex, and alcohol, we wonder why they go along with the herd. Maybe what we should be doing is encouraging all kids to respect others and enjoy being who they are. Maybe the teasers and bullies should have to change, not the kids who happen to be a little different.

    Posted by BMS June 25, 09 02:15 PM
  1. My 11-year-old son does something similar to the LW's daughter. We call is "secret squirrel" because he looks like a squirrel who is hatching an evil plot. He does it when he is excited about something, or sometimes when just sitting and thinking about something. My in-laws are great...they actually came up with the name and it's sort of an inside family joke that we all openly "do the secet squirrel" when we get excited about something. I think the fact that the habit is out in the open helps my son to relax and laugh about it instead of feeling ashamed about something that he doesn't even know he's doing. I was afraid that he would get teased in school but it hasn't been an issue so far. He swears up and down that he doesn't even do it in school but when I ask his teachers, they remember seeing it but it hasn't been a big deal. I have heard a friend or two ask about it when he's done it at our house and he's just said "oh I do it when I'm excited and I don't even know it...we call it secret squirrel" and that's that. When we notice it, we just say "hey secret squirrel" or "hey SS" and he catches himself and stops. I imagine that it's just something he'll have to outgrow at some point - our early attempts at "making" him stop were stressful and counterproductive, so we just don't make a big deal out of it.

    Posted by Jen June 25, 09 05:54 PM
  1. As a formerly twitchy child and now a twitchy adult, I can sympathize with your daughter. Even when I wanted too, I couldn't stop my twitches. They have come and gone throughout my life. Holding something in my pocket, rubber bands on my wrist, sticker charts, constant nagging did not work. In fact, anything that drew my attention to the ticks frequently made them worse.

    Yes, children can be exceedingly cruel. At some point other kids will notice and probably tease. I know your husband means well, but drawing attention to it--and negative attention--will probably only make it worse...and/or alienate your daughter.


    Posted by Twitchy but productive member of society June 25, 09 09:30 PM
  1. I read a terrific article, "The Parents We Mean to Be" that discussed how parents often unintentionally harm their children by worrying about whether or not a child is "happy." I do not mean to undermine the happiness of our children as an important part of life, but many times children and people learn and grow through failure, suffering, and unfortunately, sometimes teasing. I am a mother of a 3 year old who has a slight twitch and I was very bothered by it because I was afraid she would be teased when she entered school. But then, I remembered that everyone gets teased at some point in their lives and I would rather teach her how to cope with it when she faces it rather than avoid it all costs. Although it has been hard for me to let go and ignore it sometimes we have to let developmental issues take their course...I hope that I can help my child learn the most valuable lessons in life which may not always provide happiness.

    Posted by AMH June 25, 09 10:12 PM
  1. In light of AMH's nice insight I thought I would add something.

    I was teased mercilessly as a child and feel that it was a large part in making me the strong, secure adult I am today. Somewhere along the line I came to understand that bullying and teasing had very little to do with me and everything to do with the teaser. I am responsible for my own actions and behaviors, they are responsible for theirs. I think I am a more empathetic adult because I was teased so badly. I also have the inner strength to realize that

    1) someone can only treat you as poorly as you allow them to
    2) no matter how poorly someone treats you, it is a reflection on them and not on you
    3) Happiness is completely self-generated. No one person or thing can make you happy.

    Posted by twitchy but productive (and happy) member of society June 26, 09 10:58 AM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives