Cognitive and behavioural impairments have been observed as a consequence even of single seizures. In individuals with high seizure frequency, such impairments may accumulate and have a much greater impact on daily life than hitherto suspected. In addition, the risk of behavioural impairments is increased for some seizure types, such as secondary generalized seizures. Moreover, for all epilepsy types, increased risk is associated with persistent or poorly controlled seizures. Clinical studies show that cognitive impairments induced by seizures are reversible for most seizure types when seizures are controlled adequately. Additionally, for some seizure types there may be a kind of time window within which impairments are reversible. Exceeding the time window may result in irreversible impairment. These studies suggest that antiepileptic drug treatment can thus protect against such secondary behavioural impairments or at least correct these when seizures are controlled. This emphasizes the need to achieve complete and early seizure control. On the contrary, all antiepileptic drugs have a detrimental effect on the central nervous system and may affect cognitive function, behaviour and mood to some extent. Some treatments may undo the beneficial effects of antiepileptic drug treatment by inducing new or other cognitive impairments. This once more illustrates the need for the emphasis of clinical practice to evolve from mere seizure control to a more comprehensive approach, in which the prevention of central cognitive effects and effects on daily life of both seizures and drugs is given due attention. Optimal management requires a careful balance between, on the one hand, the desire to reach early and maximal seizure control and, on the other, the need to avoid tolerability problems related to cognitive and behavioural impairments. This article reviews how this balance can be achieved for older and newer antiepileptic drugs.