Q: Can you advise me about my preteen son? What help is available for a boy who is oppositional and defiant to the point of disorder? How about anger-management issues? Being a single mom, with no dad around, I’m having trouble with these behaviors. — Via email

A: When children reach the preteen years, predictable changes often lead them to be more challenging.

First, before the signs of puberty are visible, hormonal shifts begin to affect behavior. As early as age 9 in girls, and a year or so later in boys, this transition can cause moodiness and irritability. The least upset can touch off a meltdown, and conflicts with parents become more frequent.

Second, preteen children understand their parents in new ways. In earlier years, they looked up to their parents as superheroes — all-knowing and all-powerful. But now they see beyond their own idealizations. They compare their parents with abstract standards and with their friends’ parents. They recognize parental flaws.

When children undergo changes in cognitive development, the whole family feels the emotional consequences. Parents don’t enjoy descending from their pedestals. Preteens are likely to feel betrayed. Although they may not say so, they’re dismayed to discover that their parents can’t protect them from everything.

These shifts are tough for parents because now their children know which buttons to push to get a reaction. For preteens, awareness of their parents’ limitations couldn’t come at a worse time as they face their own fears about adolescence and the challenges of growing up.

Unfortunately these changes often lead parents and children to pull away from each other at a time when children need their families’ warmth and closeness for new reasons.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health reported that children who feel close to their parents during adolescence were less likely to use drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and more likely to perform better in school. The study showed that having at least five meals a week together as a family can help create this closeness.

If parents anticipate the changes in their preteen children, they can cut down on the conflicts and the pulling-away. Even if they feel like they’re under attack, parents can make an effort not to distance themselves from their children. Remembering the developmental reasons for their children’s behavior can help parents avoid taking the criticisms personally.

This awareness doesn’t mean that parents should ever tolerate abuse from their children. But parents can set limits. Instead of getting into a struggle, use a matter-of-fact tone to say, “I’m interested in what you have to say, but you’ll have to find another way of saying it.”

Staying calm in the face of the preteen storm is tough for any parent. Single parents find it helpful to discuss their children’s behavior with relatives, parents’ of their children’s friends, and their children’s teachers. Such perspective helps them steady themselves, pick their battles and think through how they will enforce the limits they set.

Many preteen behaviors quickly become familiar. Parents can choose a few that are most concerning and frame a common approach with the other adults in their children’s lives. Such conversations can reassure single parents that they have a backup. A united front can also be a big relief to their children — though they probably wouldn’t say so.

Of course, behavior that threatens a child’s well-being or safety may indicate that the help of a mental-health professional is needed. Besieged parents may come to feel that although they love their children, they no longer like them. When parents worry that the love seems strained, that’s a sign to get help.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

[email protected]