- Last Updated on Thursday, 21 January 2016 17:40
Epilepsy can affect anyone, at any age, but most commonly develops in young children. The good news is that seizures can be controlled by medication and many children eventually outgrow them.
Despite popular misconceptions, the future for some children with epilepsy is becoming brighter every year!
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy in children, as in adults, is characterised by recurrent seizures that are caused by abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. The term epilepsy is used to cover a variety of seizure types. These differ in cause, nature, severity, management and long-term outcome. Epilepsy can affect anyone, at any age, but most commonly develops before the age of 20. However, many children with epilepsy will outgrow it. Here follow excerpts on epilepsy in children from the Website of Epilepsy South Africa.
It is essential to identify accurately the individual child’s type of epilepsy in order to provide the most appropriate help and advice. Diagnosing epilepsy can be difficult, but it is essential that:
- Non-epileptic attacks are not misdiagnosed as epilepsy
- Seizures are not misdiagnosed as non-epileptic
- The precise type of seizure is identified.
Mistakes can happen if the episodes and the circumstances in which they occur are not described exactly. A precise account of the exact sequence of events from the first changes in the child to complete recovery and the circumstances in which the seizure occurs should be obtained. Accurate descriptions also help classify the child’s type of seizure which will determine whether special investigations such as CT scanning are needed as well as the best choice of treatment. The likelihood that the attacks will improve or stop in the future can often be assessed if the precise type of seizure is established.
The possible causes of epilepsy are many and should be carefully considered by a doctor. Often the cause cannot be determined even when a careful assessment has been carried out. This may be difficult for parents to accept but it is important that a search for the cause is not pursued indefinitely and that the parents do not feel themselves somehow responsible in such circumstances.
Treatment is advisable if seizures are recurrent and troublesome. The following are the major options available:
- Medication. Control of the seizures with medication can be good in most cases without causing harmful side-effects. Whenever possible one drug should be used in as few doses each day as necessary to ensure adequate blood levels by day and by night. Sometimes more than one drug has to be used. Drugs should never be stopped suddenly.
- Psychological intervention. Some children’s seizures are made worse by such things as stress, emotional upset and boredom. In these cases it is important to identify the problem and deal with it, which may require help from a counsellor in addition to the medication being continued.
- Surgery. Only a small number of children with epilepsy will be suitable for surgery but improved investigations and new surgical techniques mean that surgery can now be very successful for some children.
Learning and education
It is still a popular misconception that epilepsy is usually accompanied by low intelligence. In fact, it is only in a minority of children, where seizures are the result of brain damage or malformation, that this is true. Such children may need special placement where both their medical and educational needs can be met.
The majority of children with epilepsy attend mainstream schools where many of them do well. In fact, epilepsy is compatible with the full range of intelligence and achievements. However, there is evidence that some children with epilepsy may underachieve at school. If underachievement is suspected, careful psychometric assessment is required. If a genuine degree of underachievement has been demonstrated convincingly in a child, various factors need to be considered:
- Physical possibilities. These include frequent seizures, underlying structural damage, sleep disorders causing inadequate or poor quality sleep and the side-effects of anti-epileptic medication.
- Various psychological and social factors. These include poor motivation, under-stimulation, over protection and family/friends/teacher attitudes. It is difficult to say generally what factors are the most important, but the third group is often to the forefront, perhaps combined with other influences. The attitude of the teacher towards the child with epilepsy plays an important part in the child’s progress. Close communication with the parents will ensure that the teacher will be aware of the child’s epilepsy and will be able to deal with a seizure occurring in the classroom. Teachers must not be afraid to push children with epilepsy to their limits just like any other children.
In the same way that limited intelligence is by no means an inevitable accompaniment of epilepsy, serious psychological disturbance is uncommon. Children with epilepsy rarely have seizures that take the form of aggressive outbursts or other kinds of unpredictable behaviour.
If a child with epilepsy lacks confidence or is difficult, there is likely to be a simple explanation such as over permissiveness or restricted opportunities at home or at school, or perhaps fearful or hostile behaviour by other people, including other children. Teasing and social isolation are often sources of much distress. The same is true of unnecessary restrictions on childhood activities.
Some anti-epileptic drugs can cause difficult or disturbed behaviour. Should any marked behaviour change occur, the parents should discuss this with the doctor.
The child and the family
Each child’s epilepsy and any problems experienced will be unique so the following generalisations may or may not apply. Realistically, as a family you will probably have some difficult times. A usual reaction to a diagnosis of epilepsy is to feel frightened, possibly even panic stricken. You will be worried about the future, education, social life, effects of medication and many other things. You are no different from other parents; your concerns are natural. However, it is important that your family develops a positive attitude to epilepsy and to your child’s future and that each member supports the others.
Communication between parents and all the children is important: discuss your worries, share your knowledge of epilepsy and try to find out more. Time spent sharing this information will probably bring the family even closer together.
Correct information about your child’s epilepsy and a positive attitude can help you avoid some of the classic problems some families develop.
These simple guidelines should help:
- DO emphasise what your child can do, not what he or she cannot do (while at the same time taking sensible precautions)
- DO treat the child like all other children in the family
- DO help your child integrate into as many social activities as possible, helping to develop the required social skills like all other children
- DON’T overprotect the child
- DON’T make the child the centre of attention
- DON’T blame the child’s epilepsy if the family experiences difficulties.
Outlook for the future
The prospect of control by means of anti-epileptic drugs is good in most children with epilepsy. In some forms of epilepsy the long-term prospects (prognosis) for seizure control are very favourable and it is likely that the seizures will eventually improve with age or stop completely of their own accord. The chance of this happening is even higher in some types of epilepsy. It is important that these epilepsies with a good prognosis are recognised early and appropriate reassurance is given by the doctor.
If a child has been seizure free for two years, it is often appropriate for treatment to be gradually withdrawn by the doctor to see if it is still needed. In most cases there will be no recurrence.
Remember that epilepsy is not anyone’s fault. It can happen to anybody at anytime. Try to accept the situation in a positive way and keep in mind that most children will have all their seizures controlled by medication and will grow out of them. As our understanding of epilepsy improves and the treatment progresses the future for all children with epilepsy will look brighter.
Our Employee Wellbeing Programme (EWP) is available 24 hours a day if you want to know more about childhood epilepsy. Call us on our EWP number or email us at
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Revised by M van Os