Care and Feeding

My 12-Year-Old Has Suddenly Developed a Noticeable Vocal Tic

How do I protect him from teasing?

A boy holds his hands to the side of his head as he looks down at a paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tomwang112/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

We’ve been in remote schooling since we went home last March. In November, our sixth grade son started to develop a vocal tic. He makes repetitive sounds like “buh guh luh ruh.” This happens randomly, although we’ve noticed it happens more when he’s feeling stressed out or when he’s doing something passive like listening to music or watching a video.

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Since Tourette’s syndrome runs in my family, I grew up with physical and vocal tics, and we’ve been able to normalize them for our son. He understands they are not something he’s doing voluntarily and that it’s best to relax and let them happen instead of trying to suppress them. Instead, we’ve worked with our 7-year-old to get her noise-canceling earphones when the noise is bothering her, and ear plugs for her to wear at night (they share a room).

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Right now, it looks like he’ll be headed back to school this fall to start seventh grade. There’s a tic-related behavioral therapy that we may enroll him in; it won’t eliminate tics but may help him minimize them. I am still very worried about how he will be treated by other students and how to handle situations in the classroom that require quiet, like tests. Can you advise me on steps to take in advance to make the return to the classroom easier for everyone?

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—Quiet in the Classroom

Dear Quiet in the Classroom,

I’m glad that your son has a parent who can empathize with his tic and normalize the experience for him! I’m sure that makes a world of difference. You don’t mention whether you’ve taken your son to the doctor to have this vocal tic checked out. While he certainly may have Tourette’s syndrome, he could have something else entirely; in addition (as you probably know), many children with Tourette’s have co-occurring conditions (like ADHD, for example).

Once you have a diagnosis, I recommend contacting the school to discuss creating a 504 plan or an IEP for your son. I realize he may not return until next year, but this process can be lengthy so I advise you to start now. Whichever plan he qualifies for, the school should be able to make accommodations for testing. Some students are able to take tests in a different room, for example. The plan will also help educate his teachers about his tic and the best way to address it.

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Since your son is moving into seventh grade, I think it would be wise for him to discuss his vocal tic with the school counselor and develop a plan for how to talk about it with his classmates. In my opinion, it’s best to be straightforward: If a peer asks why he keeps making noises, he can say with confidence, “I have a condition called Tourette’s; it’s actually pretty common. I can’t help it, but I’m perfectly healthy.” I realize this can be difficult for a preteen, which is why I recommend he practice with the counselor who can help him come up with a plan that works specifically for him.

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And finally, ask the counselor about how the school handles bullying. Most schools have programs to prevent and respond to bullying. I hope your son never needs to report harassment, but if he does, there should be a system in place with clear steps.

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I’m glad you’re being proactive! Good luck.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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We moved last school year, when my daughter was in kindergarten. She only had three months at her new school before the pandemic hit and school was moved online. Her school is finally getting back to school hybrid, and she’s going back to in-person school as a first grader two days a week.

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While she is friendly with kids in her class this year, she has not been able to form any deep bonds due to virtual school and COVID. She is an only child, and this last year has been devastatingly isolating. Going back to school has been something we’ve all been looking forward to for her. However, in a monumental lapse of parenting, we neglected to try to coordinate with any of her friends’ parents on which two days a week their children would be attending in-person school. We are devastated that none of the three or four kids with whom she was closest are in her cohort.

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The school rejected our request to switch. But given what I know about class size, I believe they could accommodate her because several children in her class opted out of returning to the premises this year. (There are currently 14 kids per cohort—11 who are in person and three online.) How hard should I push here? I don’t want to make it harder for administrators, as I know they have their hands full. But I want to be a good advocate for my daughter. Her cohort also happens to be mostly boys, and I’m worried that the girls in the other cohort will all be bonding this year, making it even harder for my kiddo to make friends at this school.

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—COVID Mom Fails

Dear COVID Mom Fails,

First, none of this is your fault. These are extraordinary times. If you must assign blame, blame the pandemic. Not yourself. So many parents are feeling like they aren’t doing the best job parenting their children these days, when in truth, these are difficult times, parents are allowed to stumble from time to time, and children are remarkably resilient.

My suggestion is to ask once more for a change, arguing your case as thoughtfully and respectfully as possible, but then, if nothing is offered, let it go. Parents and students often worry about friends being in the same class in a given year, when in truth, elementary school friendships are quite fluid, and allowing your child to make new friends, expand boundaries, and practice social skills can be hugely beneficial moving forward.

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While having a handful of good friends can certainly make the school day easier, I have seen many circumstances in which friends rapidly grow apart, and if your child is not equipped with the skills required to move on and find new companions, that can make for a traumatic and challenging time. At these early ages in particular, when so many changes are taking place and kids are still figuring out who they are, it’s often more beneficial for a child to have lots of good friends rather than a handful of great friends.

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I asked my fifth graders today if the friends that they made in kindergarten and first grade are still some of their closest friends today, and just two of 18 responded affirmatively.

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I think it’s fine to make one more attempt at negotiating your child’s classroom, but if it doesn’t look like it will happen, feel OK knowing that there are many new friendships just waiting on the horizon for your child.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

Click here to read Care and Feeding columnist Jamilah Lemieux’s answer to this question for Slate Plus members.

My 13-year-old eighth grade son is struggling at school. Many of his teachers kick students out of Zoom or Google Meets for not having their person visible on camera. If they need a bathroom break or are late joining (for any reason, tech mishaps or anything else), they are kicked out and not allowed to rejoin the class.

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I’ve spoken to the principal, vice principal, and district superintendent about this as far back as the beginning of November. My son is failing three classes. He’s a smart kid and normally a strong B/C student. We have a daughter suffering behavioral health issues, and because of these, I have told the administration I will not allow cameras on any of my children. My wife, their mother, is a teacher of 27 years in a junior high school. They do not force cameras on their students at home. I’m so upset over this I’ve actually sought legal advice to help my son get access to his classes that’s not dependent on teachers seeing him on camera.

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In addition, the vice principal wrongly suspended my son earlier this year for allegedly sharing a video a classmate made of himself naked in his bathroom. My son had nothing to do with this and the VP never spoke to my son directly to get his side of the story; the VP just took the word of three students, one of whom was the one who’d shared this video on social media. The guilty student’s mother called us to tell us her son threw our boy under the bus. After a two-month investigation by local police, they told me there was nothing to prosecute, since it was a stupid kid prank.

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My son has never received an apology or heard anything from the administration. I’m trying to make sense out of all of this. What should I do? I feel all of it is just creating more of a burden for my son and pushing him further behind.

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—Kicked Out for Cameras Off

Dear Kicked Out,

Whew. There’s a lot going on here, and I admit that your letter has left me feeling like there’s a lot I still don’t know. What’s clear, though, is that you and your family feel an acute loss of trust in this school and the people responsible for your son’s education, and that’s an untenable situation that definitely needs to be addressed.

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There are a few things I’m wondering about. Teachers requiring students’ on-camera presence has been a contentious issue since Day One—but the policies you’ve described seem extraordinarily stringent and extreme. If multiple teachers are permanently booting students from class for perfectly normal and expected behaviors like the ones you’ve listed, the cumulative lost learning that would result seems unjustifiable. How did the administrators you spoke to—going all the way up the chain!—reconcile denying this much class time to students? What did you learn from your legal consultation? Has your wife attempted to bring her own expertise and veteran status to advocating for your son, and how did that go?

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As for the video—yikes. For an administrator to wrongfully suspend a student over an infraction as serious as distributing a nude video of a classmate, and then to never address that error, is a really egregious mistake. You don’t mention following up with the school afterward, and I’m so curious about that. I’m also wondering how your son feels amid all these challenges, and how he’s coping.

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Absent those details, my first piece of advice is to reflect: Can this educational relationship be repaired? Is there a way forward where you feel that you can confidently trust your son to this school, or has too much damage been done? Knowing all that you know, reflecting on the way your past conversations and experiences have unfolded, I think you first have to decide if you feel this environment can become safe and productive for your son again, and if it cannot, then I’d start by exploring alternatives. (Is it possible for him to enroll at the school where your wife teaches, for starters?)

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If you do feel there’s a way back—or there aren’t any other viable options—then I’d figure out what you and your son need going forward. Having his camera off is nonnegotiable for you, and it sounds like you’d also really like acknowledgment and repair from the wrongful suspension. Without knowing the substance or result of your past attempts to negotiate about the camera, I would advise you to start assiduously documenting each and every time your son is ready to learn with his camera off and is denied the opportunity to do so. Having copious records of his loss of access (and the corresponding decline in his grades) will help you build a case about how much these policies are harming students. I’d also try to document what you remember about your conversation with the other student’s mother, or see if she’d be willing to repeat it. Then, I’d schedule another meeting with the principal and VP to address both of your areas of concern. While the camera issue and the suspension are seemingly unrelated in topic, they’ve both corroded your trust in the school and your faith that they are acting in your son’s best interest, and I think you should make sure that connection is clear.

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And then … see what happens. I hope you can work with them to find a solution where your needs are met. If not, then I think you may have to turn to a lawyer, an educational advocate, other parents, or the media. I hope it doesn’t come to that, though. Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

I’m a 12-year-old girl in middle school, and I need some help. There are these boys in my gym class who were talking about my behind, and they made it a point that I heard them. Is this harassment? And if it is, who do I report it to? My coach? The dean? The principal? A counselor? I’m afraid if I say something that it’ll get worse, and I honestly think it would be better if I didn’t do anything if/when one of them actually touches me.

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—What’s Harassment?

Dear WH,

My knee-jerk response, having experienced sexual harassment for much of my life, is (1) yes, this is harassment, and (2) yes, you should tell someone. You don’t mention your parents on this list, but they would be a great starting point. If you’re uncomfortable telling them, then whomever you’re most comfortable telling on your list would be good. My last point, which is most important, is for you to know with certainty: It would not be better for anyone—especially you—for you to do nothing if/when one of the touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.

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After a few deep breaths, here’s my more nuanced answer. These boys are probably trying to flirt with you, and they need to learn—early and often—the difference between flirting and harassment.

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What is essential is your safety, both physical and emotional, so think about how you want to ensure that. Perhaps you want to have an adult handle the situation. Ask for what you need. Do you need to process your feelings? Do you need to be separated from these boys? Do you need for the adult to talk to them about their behavior or implement consequences?

Your other option is to handle it yourself. I recommend doing this as soon as you feel confident enough to do it but not a moment before. (You might store this lesson away until you’re older.) When I was in my 20s, I lived in two big cities, and in both of those cities, I got harassed regularly on the subway. For a long time, my reaction was one of fear and shame. I would try to shrink or move. I did not look my harassers in the eye. I’d escape the situation as soon as possible. Eventually, I realized that I shouldn’t feel shame—they should feel shame. So, if I felt physically safe in the situation (there were other people around, or I had an easy escape route), I would shame them. I would say, loudly enough for others to hear but not angrily, something like, “Shame on you. Why would you think it’s OK to [fill in what they did or said]?”

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Of course, these were people I’d likely never see again, so your situation is a little different. I still think you could address it yourself if you want to. If the boys say something again, you could tell them straight up, “Don’t make comments about my body,” or “What would your mom think if she heard you say that to me? Maybe I should tell her.”

Take care of yourself.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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I am writing to you with a question that I am afraid to ask my children’s principal or district administrators for fear of sounding insensitive or unappreciative. Why is my school spending precious resources on P.E. and art teachers right now, instead of more classroom teachers?

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