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How to handle mood swings in eating disorder recovery

How to handle mood swings in eating disorder recovery

Melanie feels worn out. Her teenage daughter Kimmy has an eating disorder, but that’s not even the biggest challenge right now. “What we’re really struggling with,” says Melanie, “are the endless mood swings. She’s up and down constantly, either yelling at me and getting in my face or slamming doors and shutting down alone in her room for hours. I’ve tried everything, and I feel like I’m out of options. What am I supposed to do with her when she gets like this? Will it ever stop?”

We’ve all heard about teenagers whose moods change constantly. Many of us assume it’s a natural phase that we must simply endure. We might think “all teens do this, so I guess I just have to wait it out.” But this thought is almost always followed by deep sadness and maybe even anger. You might think to yourself: “I hate this! I don’t deserve to be treated like this!” 

And you’re right! You don’t deserve to be treated badly. And at the same time it’s normal for teens to have big mood swings and occasionally lose their temper or emotionally withdraw. The challenge is that massive, constant mood swings are a sign of extreme distress and often accompany dangerous mental health conditions like eating disorders. This means that while mood swings are normal during adolescence, extreme mood swings that damage your family are a symptom of mental disorder and need treatment. 

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!

  • Self-Esteem
  • Self-Regulation
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming strategies

Mood swings and an eating disorder

Chronic mood swings mean your child is struggling with near-constant emotional dysregulation. They almost never feel calm, confident, and curious. Instead, they’re either highly activated, either by positive emotions like joy and excitement, or by negative emotions like anger and fear. Or they’re disengaged and withdrawn, typically based on emotions like sadness and despair. 

It’s physically and emotionally draining to be emotionally dysregulated, like treading water with no shore in sight. It’s very hard to recover from an eating disorder if you’re experiencing massive daily mood swings.

Melanie’s daughter Kimmy needs her help learning how to regulate her emotions rather than being taken over by them. Working on this skill will help Kimmy feel better and improve her chances of recovering from her eating disorder. The goal is for Kimmy to go through normal adolescent mood swings, but at a lower intensity and frequency, which will indicate a greater sense of wellbeing.  

Our goal is to raise adults who yes, have big feelings sometimes, but are able to manage their emotions and behavior even when they have big feelings.

How to respond to mood swings

Melanie feels terrible because when Kimmy yells, Melanie tries not to, but often yells back. And when Kimmy bursts into tears, sometimes Melanie does, too. “I feel completely taken over by her moods and emotions,” she says. “It’s so embarrassing, as if I have no self control.”

It’s quite normal to respond to a child in this much distress with your own feelings of distress. Of course it’s upsetting raising a child who is explosive and frequently drives you to either yelling or sobbing. It’s very hard to stay sturdy in the face of a raging kid. All of us can feel blown off course when our kids are in the thick of a powerful emotional storm. 

But luckily, there are things we can do to prepare for and manage the aftermath of our kids’ mood swings. That doesn’t mean we can stop big emotions from happening, but we can reduce the damage and lower the intensity of future experiences. We can’t stop our kids from having big feelings, but what we do when those big feelings show up makes a big difference.

We can help our kids build emotional regulation skills, which will allow them to process their emotions more adaptively and without causing harm. With practice, even the most volatile people can improve their emotional regulation skills and decrease the fallout from their big emotions. 

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!

  • Self-Esteem
  • Self-Regulation
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming strategies

Steps to build emotional regulation skills

Here’s what you can do to navigate your child’s big mood swings during eating disorder recovery: 

1. Check the weather

Emotional storms can seem like they come from nowhere, but usually we can map out a few reliable triggers. The more triggers you know about, the greater your chance of reducing them before the storm hits. This doesn’t mean eliminating big emotions, but helping your child experience them safely. 

2. Know what you can do—and what you can’t

When your child is raging, you can control your response, but you can’t control how they feel. This is really important and really hard to remember in the heat of the moment. But the more you focus on managing your own feelings and behavior, the better you can withstand the strong winds of your child’s feelings. This will reduce the storm’s intensity, because fighting back or trying to control your child’s emotions typically increases their intensity. 

3. Regulate yourself

You can’t ask your child to regulate their emotions if you’re not able to regulate your own. Most of us need some help learning how to calm ourselves down when our kids are having an emotional storm. So reach out for support from someone who understands how hard this is and won’t judge you. You deserve support, and the more support you get, the better you’ll be able to support your child.

4. Co-regulate

If you sense that your child is getting emotionally dysregulated, take steps to co-regulate with them. This doesn’t mean saying “calm down” (which never works) but rather validating their experience of distress and using your calm, regulated nervous system to model safety and security. With practice, you can head off many storms before they gain intensity. 

5. Hold your boundaries

You can’t control your child’s feelings or even their behavior when they’re in an emotional storm, but you can remove yourself from harm’s way if necessary. This is especially true if your child is being verbally or physically abusive. It’s OK to protect yourself from harm, and it will actually protect your child from harm, since hurting a parent increases shame, which reduces emotional regulation and increases intensity. 


6. Regroup afterwards

First, take some time to reflect on the storm with another adult who you can trust not to blame you or your child for what happened. You want to review the emotional triggers and make sense of what happened. Next, find time to calmly and compassionately review the events with your child and discuss how you can work together to manage future emotional storms. As for punishments, if your child broke curfew, you can move the curfew back for a limited amount of time. If they damaged something, ask them to repair or cover the cost of replacement. These are natural consequences and are directly related to the events, but you want to avoid punishments that are disconnected from the events that took place, as they rarely make a positive impact.

Making progress

Supporting a child with an eating disorder when they have big mood swings is challenging. It’s not something most of us can do gracefully or naturally at first. But with practice, Melanie slowly made progress with Kimmy. “It was so hard at first—it felt like juggling,” she says. “I felt like I had to keep my eyes on so many moving parts, but with practice it became more natural and now it’s almost automatic sometimes.”

Kimmy is still dealing with a lot of ups and downs, and she’s working through eating disorder recovery, but having her mom’s support is making a difference. “The other day she apologized for how she behaved a few months ago,” says Melanie. “And though she doesn’t know exactly what I’ve done to change things, she was aware that something about what I was doing seemed to be helping her calm down a little faster. She actually thanked me! I finally feel hopeful again.”

Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.

See Our Guide For Parenting a Teenager With An Eating Disorder

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