Come graduation, most students can’t wait to leave the halls of high school behind. But for others, the thought of moving on is terrifying enough that they purposely choose to stay. 

Kids grow up fast. From the moment they hit primary school, they obsess over dressing older, being older, doing what older kids do and even emulate what their “grown-up” friends have to say. In fact, most kids seem to be in a perpetual hurry to speed the hands of time. But that isn’t the case for everyone. For many teens, “growing up” is a fact of life approached with a varying degree of anxiety. Simply put, while some brim with excitement at what possibilities life as a young adult will bring, others are flat out scared.

Growing up is hard to do
Growing up is not a one-time event – it’s a series of transitions and normal developmental milestones,” says Michelle Bates, registered social worker and the mental health lead for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. “New experiences challenge us and they can represent uncertainty in relation to the unknown, meaning we often approach these transitions with a reduced sense of our own competency. Teens entering a new phase in life might question their ability to deal,” she says. One of the most pivotal transitions in a young adult’s life is the transition from high school to post-secondary education. For many, this means moving out of the family home and living on their own for the first time. It also means taking ownership of one’s future and choosing a path toward an eventual career. This is a huge step that can cause emotional and mental stress in some teens.

“There can be anxiety associated with moving out and leaving the familiar – particularly when it comes to parents, who take care of everything for you,” says Cindy Babyn, the Ottawa-based author of the book, Moving Out! A Young Adult’s Guide to Living on Your Own. “More confident teens tend to approach this transition with a level of excitement, but it really depends on one’s readiness,” she adds.

The victory lap, defined
A term coined to describe a student’s purposeful avoidance of life beyond the sanctuary of high school, the “victory lap” happens when students stay for an extra year whether they’ve met all their graduation requirements or not. (Ontario is one of the last provinces that allows students to return for a fifth year of high school, even though Ontario’s Grade 13 – the Ontario Academic Credit program – was phased out in 2003.)

Currently in the middle of his victory lap, 18-year-old Max Miller from Ancaster, Ont. is thankful he has the choice to take it. A well-spoken jazz guitar player who has travelled extensively with his family, he says he always knew he would take a post-grad year. “I don’t feel comfortable moving on yet. I know lots of people who stayed back because they’re not ready either. It’s not unusual for students who have all their credits and don’t need to go back do it, just because they’re not ready.”

According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, in 2010-11, over 20,000 students – roughly 13 per cent in total – who graduated in four years returned for at least another semester. In fact, based on the popularity of the victory lap year, the provincial government implemented a 34-credit cap this September.

Miller says he doesn’t feel “mentally mature enough” to leave high school yet. “Being on your own, living away from home and even renting an apartment are all a big deal.” Such a big deal, in fact, that a Lakehead University study published in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy in 2010 suggests the victory lap pathway to university may also be a form of transition anxiety.

Jacqueline Kroeker, a former high school teacher and current vice-principal at Acadia Junior High in Winnipeg, concurs and says that while the victory lap isn’t a notable trend in Western Canada, “by semester two, the anxiety level rises in Grade 12 students. The fear of not knowing what to do is overwhelming for some.”

Motivating to move on
So can parents help ease pre-grad stress? The good news is that the values instilled in teens, along with behavioural and academic expectations, can have a big influence on their feelings around growing up and taking charge of their lives. “Sometimes there’s too much pressure to know from a young age what you want to be when you grow up,” says Carolyn Venema, a secondary program consultant for the Leadership and Learning Department of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. “This can be self-defeating as much as it can be motivating; kids might be afraid to grow up because all the planning then starts to become real.”

She asserts that instilling a sense of ‘I can do this’ is critical to a teen’s ability to successfully cope with transition. “All kids need to experience success to build their sense of self-sufficiency, but kids also need to experience failure – within safe boundaries – to learn from mistakes and develop a healthy attitude of resiliency.”

Encouraging independence
Teaching kids independent living skills is integral for making the transition to adult life less emotionally taxing. “We need to help kids become independent from a very young age,” says Venema. “If they have never built the skills for everyday living, then the fear of growing up may literally come from having no idea how to live on their own.”

Babyn agrees that certain anxieties associated with leaving home can be easily avoided by preparing kids for the practical aspect of living on their own. Simple things, such as teaching them to cook healthy meals, showing them how to do laundry, and going over basic budgeting skills can go a long way toward preparing teens for life outside of their childhood home.

As for Miller, he hopes that committing himself to an extra year of high school will help raise his marks and get him into the university of his choice next September. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to graduate because I’m afraid I’ll miss [high school life] too much. But you’ve got to move on sometime, right?”