Epilepsy Syndromes Childhood Absence

Absence seizures are characterized by brief but frequent staring spells. It is an idiopathic generalized epilepsy syndrome (“idiopathic” means that the cause of the syndrome is unknown and “generalized” means that it affects the entire brain). Childhood absence seizures usually begin to develop in children between 3 and 10 years of age, but peak onset is between age 6 and 8.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation of America®, childhood absence seizures accounts for 2 to 4 percent of all childhood epilepsy syndromes.

What Causes Absence Seizures in Children?

Because there are no obvious neurological causes for childhood absence seizures, they are most likely inherited. According to Epilepsy.com, approximately one-third of children with childhood epilepsy seizures have a family history of absence seizures. However, inheritance patterns for this disorder are complex, and medical researchers have not been able to pinpoint the specific genes responsible for absence seizures in children.

Children with childhood absence seizures don’t usually have any of the neurological or developmental disorders associated with so many other forms of epilepsy. An EEG (electroencephalograph), however, will reveal a distinct brain wave pattern, making it a fairly straightforward disorder to diagnose.

Although genetic inheritance is the primary causal factor for absence seizures in children, other risk factors include:

  • Gender (it’s more prevalent in females)
  • Hyperventilation (which can trigger absence seizures in “at risk” children).

What Do Childhood Absence Seizures Look Like?

Childhood absence seizures are short staring spells. Each spell generally lasts only about 10 seconds, but these seizures in children can occur numerous times each day.

Initially, childhood absence seizures may be perceived as daydreaming spells, and a child may be chastised by his parents and teachers for not paying attention when he should be. The child may not even be aware that anything unusual has happened to him. Other signs to help identify absence seizures include:

  • An abrupt start and end to staring spells
  • Blank, expressionless periods
  • Cluster pattern of seizures (absence seizures tend to come in clusters)
  • Frequency (seizures can occur up to a few hundred times a day)
  • Rolling back of eyes (this does not happen in every case)
  • Unresponsiveness.

According to researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, approximately 40 percent of children with childhood absence seizures will also experience occasional tonic-clonic (convulsive) seizures. Convulsive seizures are less likely to develop in children whose seizures are well controlled with medication.

What’s the Prognosis for Childhood Absence Seizures?

Childhood absence seizures generally respond very well to anti-epileptic medication, and the Epilepsy Foundation of America® estimates that approximately 40 percent of children will grow out of their disorder entirely. Remission is most likely for cases in which:

  • Seizures are well controlled with medication
  • The child was diagnosed with childhood absence seizures at a young age
  • There are no neurological or development disorders accompanying the seizures.


BMJ Publishing Group Limited Staff. (2008). Absences seizures in children. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/ceweb/conditions/chd/0317/0317_background.jsp

Donner, E. J et al. (2006). Childhood and juvenile absence epilepsy. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/Epilepsy/Childhood-Juvenile-Absence-Epilepsy.aspx?articleID=6983