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Information for parents, carers & professionals

What are non-epileptic attacks?

When people have non-epileptic attaks they experience sudden changes in their behaviour and ability to control their body. Unlike epileptic seizures, the changes are not due to electrical activity in the brain. More information can be found on the symptoms page.

You may have read or been told that non-epileptic attaks are caused by a significant traumatic event in the past. However, the exact causes for non-epileptic attacks in children are not known. Most research indicates links between psychological distress and seizures, and not necessarily a traumatic event. Studies have shown school worry/stress to be the biggest cause for non-epileptic attack disorder in children.

Why is my child having attacks?

Non-epileptic attacks happen because of problems with managing thoughts, memories, emotions or sensations in the brain. Sometimes this might be due to stress or worries. However, they can also happen to people who seem calm and relaxed. In most cases people do not know why they have them.

Some children have both epileptic and non-epileptic seizures. Your medical doctor will have told you which type your child has.

Will they get better?

Children with non-epileptic attacks can recover fully and lead normal lives. Non-epileptic attacks can often reduce significantly once the diagnosis has been given, but children often need some extra help in getting better. Children are also more likely to become seizure free compared to adults.

Who can help my child?

There are people who can help your child to learn new ways to manage their stress, worries and anxiety and hopefully reduce or prevent more attacks. If your child has not already been referred to a specialist who helps people in this way you should ask their doctor if they can request an appointment with someone in your local area.

Health professionals such as clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists may have been trained to work with difficulties related to symptoms that people with non-epileptic attacks have. They often work in special teams called Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) or some hospitals. More information about these qualified people and local services can be found on the NHS website.

What can I do?

While it may be difficult, acceptance of the diagnosis is key to helping your child get better. It is also important to recognise that the physical symptoms are real and your child is not deliberately making them happen.

Like epileptic seizures, non-epileptic attacks are frightening to see. However, it is best to try and keep calm and make sure the child having the attack is safe from injuring themselves.

Remember that non-epileptic attacks do not cause any damage to the brain, even if they go on for several minutes.

Speak calmly to the child having the attack; non-epileptic attacks often stop more quickly if the child having is addressed in a calm and reassuring way. Your child may be able to tell you what is helpful to them.

You should only call an ambulance if you think that the seizure is epileptic. When a diagnosis of non-epileptic attack disorder (without epileptic seizures) has been made, it is not necessary to call an ambulance even if the seizure lasts more than five minutes. You may wish to ask your child’s doctor about this.

What can my child do?

While doctors and other qualified people can help your child to manage anxiety, stress and attacks, there are some things that may help you and your child now. Managing high levels of stress and anxiety has been found to be helpful in lots of young people and adults. If your child is having significant difficulty you should speak to your doctor or GP about talking to someone about the feelings or symptoms they may be having. More information can be found on our strategies page.

What can school do?

If a diagnosis of NEAD has been made, it is important that school staff are aware of certain key information in order to understand the problem and best help the them. General information in the previous chapters can also be useful for school staff, to allow them to provide optimal help for young people with NEAD.

They may look like epileptic seizures, but brain electrical activity is normal during a non-epileptic attack, in contrast to what happens during an epileptic seizure.

Non-epileptic attacks are often linked to emotions and may represent difficulties in expressing feelings and/or in dealing with stressful situations. In children with NEAD, scientific studies have indicated an important role for stress associated with school. Challenging life events can also trigger non-epileptic attacks. In some cases, a traumatic event in the past may also play a role.

When a non-epileptic attack occurs at school, and when the diagnosis of NEAD has already been made by healthcare professionals, it is usually unnecessary to call an ambulance.

During a non-epileptic attack at school, it is important for school staff to stay calm, remembering that even if the seizure may look quite dramatic, there is no risk of brain damage. Staff should remain with the child to reassure them and to make sure that there is no risk of injury.

After a non-epileptic attack has finished, it is important to allow the child to gradually recover in a quiet, calm place before returning to the classroom. Most of the time, it is not necessary for the parents or carers to take the child out of school.

The occurrence of a non-epileptic attacks can be a warning sign for the school to be particularly vigilant for any signs of school anxiety, for example related to academic pressure, social isolation or bullying.

Schools should inform parents as soon as a diagnosis of NEAD is suspected.

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