Q: Our 11-year-old son has always enjoyed swimming. But last summer he wouldn't put on a suit. Should we force him?
A: No. At this age, many adolescents become quite self-conscious about their bodies. They're convinced that everyone is staring at them. They exaggerate even the smallest physical flaws.
If your son is displaying early signs of puberty (enlargement of the testicles and growth of pubic hair) he may feel quite self-conscious and prefer to withdraw from situations that require him to be undressed.
Or, he may feel embarrassed because he may be less developed than some of his friends and think himself abnormal.
Again, forcing him to wear a swimsuit would only precipitate arguments and increase his anxiety.
Finally, your son may be worried about developing a spontaneous erection, another common occurrence at this age, but quite unsettling nonetheless, particularly in a bathing suit. He may want to avoid this situation by staying away from swimming.
As your son enters adolescence, it's important to allow him increasing discretion in making decisions. This seems to be one of those times.
You may want to take the opportunity, if you haven't already, to begin discussions about puberty with him. Public libraries stock a large number of books on the subject, and your doctor may be able to help as well. Even if your son says he's not interested or declines the invitation to talk, at least he knows he can approach you and at some point he's likely to confide.
Dr. Wilson is director of pediatric primary care of the Johns
Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.