Guest Blog from AC Education: The Seven Steps of Attachment Theory in Children

Thursday 24 March 2016

What we call memory is a complicated brain and body function that does not develop in most humans until they are walking and talking. Attachment theory deals with this forgotten period of human life. It shows us that the experiences of our earliest life have a formative effect that will echo through the rest of our lifetime.

Our main source of attachment theory is John Bowlby, who developed theories about early childhood from the middle of the last century onwards (Bowlby, 1991). His theories have been supported by much research into the behaviour of children and parents, as well as more recent research into the development of the human brain.

We can identify 7 key steps in attachment that have an impact on how the young brain develops:

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  1. Claiming: birth – two years
    • Enables the baby to develop brain patterns that establish a core sense of identity
  2. Attunement: birth – two years
  3. Affective attunement: birth – two years
    • Creates brain patterns for recognising and understanding feelings
  4. Impulse regulation: six months – four years
    • Leads to structures in the brain for regulating impulses and developing morality
  5. Shame regulation: six months – four years
    • Produces brain patterns that enable the child to regulate shame and develop social learning
  6. Rage management: six months – four years
    • Enables the brain to stabilise and the child to become socially acceptable
  7. Pre-cognitive patterning: birth – five years
    • Throughout the entire attachment period the patterns being laid down in the brain underpin how the child will be able to think

Babies need adults to intervene in order for these steps in development to happen so that the baby can develop full brain function. These attachment needs must be met for healthy development. If unmet attachment needs are recognised and addressed within the critical development period, children can often recover with no more help from adults than everyday positive parenting.

But if the unmet needs are not recognised until after the critical attachment period has passed, then the children and young people will need help from adults with additional skills. This is therapeutic parenting. Skilled parents know when the attachment process with their child has been disrupted – for example by a parent or child being in hospital for a long period – and have the additional skill to adjust their parenting to help the child recover.

If the child or young person has been separated from their family, there is a further level of skill required to enable an older child or young person to develop a new positive attachment. This is therapeutic REparenting, which is the professional task required of foster carers and residential workers. Adoptive parents also need to be able to provide therapeutic reparenting.

Three things are needed for traumatised people to recover:

  1. Safety
  2. Secure social networks with well-formed attachment relationships
  3. The ability to express what has happened

So children therefore need adults who have the skills to promote positive attachments- key considerations for foster parents.

Then there are three processes in the long journey to recovery:


Gaining or regaining the ability to self-regulate


Gaining or regaining the ability to process information accurately and make sense of the world


Gaining or regaining the ability to form and maintain secure relationships

Adults can help children with these processes using appropriate interventions at different stages of recovery.

For more in depth knowledge surrounding this topic and many others, please look at the training we offer at