A sad myth: nurses eat their young


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There is a “myth” I think it is way past time to dispel…and if there’s any truth to it, I want us all to work for a solution.

It is a quotation about nurses that is so sad, I refuse to repeat it when I’m giving presentations to my nursing colleagues. I fear that by repeating it, I too am perpetuating its use.

So I will state it once now, praying that this is the last time that I, or any other nurse, ever has to hear it.

The despicable phrase is: “Nurses eat their young.”

Because I speak full time to nurses and am an expert on nurse recruitment and retention, I get to talk to thousands of nurse a year. Every now and then someone repeats this horrible phrase. Too often it is a new grad or first year nurse. I was shocked to learn that 20% of first year nurses quit in this country! Our nation is expected to be half a million nurses short within the next ten years.

We need to mentor our new nurses.

I believe strongly (can you tell?) that we need to care for each other, build each other up, help each other out. Nurses can do a lot to end this shortage by creating an environment where others want to work.

We need to “love our young.”

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LeAnn Thieman

LeAnn Thieman, LPN, CSP, CPAE, is a nationally acclaimed professional speaker, author and nurse, and the coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul and Chicken Soup for the Nurse’s Soul, Second Dose. She is an expert in nurse recruitment and retention.

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33 Responses to A sad myth: nurses eat their young

  1. usia

    I agree. But I don’t think it’s just “nurses” per se.
    I just think it’s mean people. Those are in every profession.

  2. lauren

    i am a new grad that has recently experienced this phrase first hand and it was so bad that i actually considered switching careers. in fact, these ppl were so disinclined to help me ease into the stressful enviornent of med-surg that i was having nightmares about my job and having to go back to work the next night. i no longer work there, but the experience has scarred me so much that i am almost scared to go and interview somewhere after my baby’s born b/c i’m afraid of getting the same kind of cold unfeeling people.

  3. Joyce

    Unfortunately this “myth” is still in practice today. I am a new nurse and I was just about “eaten” by the experienced nurses on my floor. They found pleasure in watching the new nurses struggle, talked poorly behind our backs, and treated us like we were their slaves during orientation so they could sit back with their feet up. I am one of three newly hired nurses on my floor and we all felt the same way about the treatment. We all started to wonder why we bothered to go to school to work in such a nasty environment. The positive side of this is…i found that some of the newer nurses on the floor were actually very helpful and enjoyed teaching the ropes. So maybe the tides are turning. I pray theat I never treat a new nurse the way I was treated.

  4. Karen

    Unfortunately, this crosses all area. Age,new nurse, etc. There is nothing blocking this except good management who refuse this to be tolerated on their units. his bullying is so rife that even our nat’l assoc (ANA) is paying attention to it and has a position paper out on it. We all have a role to play in helping each other out, new nurse or old nurse.

  5. IT IS NO MYTH. This attitude of nursing eating their young is the rule not the exception. We should not have nurses in charge of anything except the wards. Hospitals would be better off bringing in management people to run the day to day nursing operation.Let nurses do nursing. The people at my first hospital were so cold and cuthroat that I left and found work in another nursing facility and although not as bad it still sucks. There needs to be a revamping of how this job sees itself and get rid of the unprofessional old women who don’t have a clue as what people skills are.

  6. Keith Penner

    This may be true on the floor, but I would argue it’s different as you move into the ranks of truly professional nurses. As I went through anesthesia school, most of the nurse anesthetists I worked with were nothing but helpful. That holds true as I’ve been a CRNA for 10 years now and have worked and freelanced at many different facilities.

    Want to be seen as professionals? Act like it.

  7. T.E. Kane

    Nurses eat their young, their old and anyone else in between. If there is blood in the water nurses will find it. Somehow we (nurses as a whole) seem to forget that we were all new once and that none of us are perfect. Time to start putting some of these sacred cows out to pasture.

  8. Cher Turvey

    I must say that even though I have heard this phrase from nursing school to when I started working on a Med/Surg/Tele floor, I myself have never experienced it. The floor that I have been working on for the past 3 years has been one of mutual respect and teamwork. Everyone from the DON to the CNA’s were extremely helpful from day one. I believe that I can sincerely say the same profesionalism is ongoin since I took the charge nurse position on nights 2 years ago.

  9. bruce hohnsbehn

    i have benn a nurse for along time and have never even hears the saying until i read this article.i have worked every department from med durg to the highest acuity icu around and have never experienced any form of “hazing” nor have i ever benn looked down upon by my peers. what i am saying is,that if you work with confidence it shows and your peers will see that. respect is earned by your work ethic and knowledge and skill. stop whining do your job and learn from all around you and be willing to teach what your years of experience have taught you. that is all i have to say about that. oh and for all upper management, we are all grossly underpaid!!!!!!!!

  10. withheld

    It is absolutely a fact that nurses “eat” their young, and those who are new to the profession. It is a factor of their own career dissatisfaction, their own insecurity and misery. I have a BS in a business related field as well as long successful track record in hospital QA/PI. I undertook the nursing curriculum because the clinical aspect of hospital operations fascinated me. I was licensed in NJ 2 yrs ago,and my experience on those nursing units has been so grossly miserable and unprofessional that I am OUT. I am fortunate to have another degree, a Bachelors Degree, and administrative experience to fall back on, but this is an extremely challenging market. I am seeking another non-direct patient care position where I can utilize both experiences. I will never go back to those nursing units as my past experiences were so much more professional, and rewarding. Deny it all you like, but “lateral violence” is the norm.

  11. dawn

    comment to above, maybe you could try out nurse case management…. it is rewarding, unfortunately, i have found that even in cm the older nurses still eat their young. good luck.

  12. Sien-Ven

    This is a saying I have never heard of before until I read this article. I don’t know where you guys work, but I have never encountered a nurse who “ate their young”. True, there are some nurses who are quite harsh, but the number of nurses who are helpful and caring significantly outweight those who are not. Actually in nursing school, the myth we are trying to dispell is one that says nurses are angels…
    Try to coming Canada 😉 Nurses here are fabulous (at least in Calgary).

  13. Ron Evens

    This is ABSOLUTELY true. I’ve been a nurse for over 20 years and see the practice of nurses eating their young constantly. I am a travel nurse and have found that nurses don’t intentionally eat their young, but because of the shortages everywhere the experienced nurses do not have the time to help the new nurses. Doesn’t matter if they are new nurses, new to the facility or new to the unit the experienced staff do not have the time to help the newcomer. I have found some experienced nurses who do enjoy making life difficult for the new nurses. It’s the bullies that need to go.

  14. Paul Millard, RN, CEN

    Once heard a resident test a drunk for lucidity. He asked “Why do helicopters eat their young?” There followed a long rambling story about national security, the viet nam war, etc, etc. Then he said something I’ll never forget. “Besides, there more tender when they’re young.” Whenever I hear that terrible phrase about nurses, or witness it, I think of that statement.

  15. Melinda M

    Sad to say it still is happening. I am one of the 20% that has quit due to being bullied & harrassed on the job, by other nurses and manager. I have a few friends who have seen what I been through and thought about becoming a nurse and been scared off from my experience. Absoluted worst nightmare of my life, and I am a women in my 40’s. Now I know why there is a nursing shortage. I really feel for all the patients who do need caring and compassion, good luck in find a good nurse, they run all the good ones off it seems.

  16. Allen

    Too true. The mind set stems from, “if i had to go through it, you do to.” Plus, (i’m a former helicopter pilot) the med error, mistake, whatever is blamed on the nurse and there is this “fear” of making a mistake. if one happens the fingers start pointing at everyone else. Mistakes happen, near misses happen but because there is no one with balls in the nursing system, nurses perpetuate an aura of fear within our practice. If i make a near miss, i tell everyone. Because if i’ve done it, others have or will. Best to learn from each other vs blame each other

  17. Deborah Jones

    Lady if you think nurses eat their young is a myth you are out of touch or brain dead. Not only do they eat their young but anyone else that isn’t a bully like them.

  18. Tiffany

    I have been a nurse for a little over a year now. I started in a Skilled Nursing Facility due to a lack of hospitals willing to train new nurses. It was a very nasty environment. The more experienced nurses were verbally abusive when I asked questions or needed help, or they would just point out the Policy and Procedure manual that has no table of contents or particular order. They would talk about me behind my back and sometimes even ask me questions like “How did you even become a nurse?” It took me six months to finally find a hospital job, and it is the same way where I work now, except for the fact that I am not the new unexperienced nurse that I was. Sadly, nurses do eat their young. I will not be like them, I will teach new nurses with skill and compassion. I do still have days when I wished I would have chosen another career path, but I am here now, and I will do the best I can. Hopefully it will get better when the old nasty nurses retire.

  19. Lisa

    I am a new nurse in a large metro Atlanta hospital. Interestingly, I am also 47 years old!
    I have found that there ARE a few nurses that view the new grad nurse as a way to validate their own deficiencies~ By picking apart every detail of my work, I suppose they make themselves feel less inadequate. Indeed it does seem that the few who “eat their young” are the same ones who are not viewed in a positive manner by patients and other nurses. It really takes a bullying mentality to demean a new grad who is trying very hard, and usually smiling through the pain!
    I LOVE nursing! It is not the patients that make me feel less confident- it is the few “old” nurses who have forgotten what it was like to be trying so hard to learn and be a valuable part of the team.
    Thanks for the article!

    Lisa Green, RN

  20. Diana

    I AGREE! I am a brand newgraduate working in Toronto. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a few wonderful nurses help guide me during the way, yet sadly the majority of them will eat you alive. I have thought about quiting mulitple times due to my low self esteem that these older nurses caused me. I do not understand this at all, the new grads will be taking over their jobs, they need to respect us and treat us better!

  21. steve r

    it seems like most of these nurses want to blame the hospital for thier lack of compassion because they are always short handed.bullcrap!! my mother was treated with such arrogance and coldness by most of the nurses and doctors before she passed away. when she was on her death bed, there was a nurse to be found anywhere in her final hours. if you have compassion and kindness in your heart as being part of your nature and not something learned,then you are a few steps above the rest. if this is not already in you and you cannot deal with sick patients,then get the hell out ! because you can’t handle it and we as patients,familys and friends don’t want you there for fear of neglect. will the day ever come when all nurses will poses this god given compassion and always hold true to it ? i have little hope.”they just don’t give a damm” plain and simple.for those who live in my area,stay awya from palisade general hospital in north bergen.nj,you may never come home again !

  22. Anastasia

    I find nurses, especially older ones, to be nasty and seem to get a “perverted” pleasure out of eating their younger nurses. It sickens me! If they are frustrated, they should keep it to themselves.

  23. Teresa

    Ignoring the big ol’ white elephant standing in the middle of the nurses’ station ain’t gonna make it go away. I’ve been a RN for almost 4 years, and nurses not only eat their young, they eat their old more. I’ve seen 20 something nurses just visciously attack older RNs starting out. It is as bad as being thrown back into 7th grade out there. I left a hospital a year and a half ago d/t this issue, and just about left nursing entirely. There is seriel mobbing going on, and it appears that HR is pretty powerless to stop it. So your pollyanna attitude just isn’t helping matters one bit. If 20% of newbies are leaving largely due to this problem, wouldn’t it be better to address it than pretend it doesn’t exist?

  24. nurse02

    Yes this happened to me when i first started into nursing years ago. However i was fortunate and was teamed up will a loving mentor. She brcame my best friend and because of her i stayed in nursing.
    Also LPNs should be commented for what they do in nursing also. We all members of the nursing family and should work together.

  25. stillirise

    Has anyone thought about the STRESS of having to be “all giving” and not getting recognition, or pay, might actually make older nurses grumpy and unable to give anymore? I have been a pediatric nurse for 23yrs, everything from PICU to homehealth with children on vents. And last year after having to watch a 6yr old vomit up threw his trach all the way to the vent PEEP valve, again, and nothing the doc’s or I could do would stop this, plus a best friend died at 49 of melanoma. I found myself totally burned out emotionally, so bad that I ended up in the Psych ward for 4 days. Every doc, nurse and counselor I came in contact with told me, I am not the first and sure will not be the last. ( Had counseling with a new grad, she was trying to find a less “stressful” floor). They actually asked would I speak to the nursing students and med students….I said, bring them on!!! Everyone agreed that if the medical profession actually took care of it’s OWN, maybe we could give more and turnover would not be so high. No nurse went into the profession who didn’t have calling to help people. I have always helped new grads, I was “eaten” when I was in their shoes……..:( p.s. I am back taking care of kids on vents…..at school, THEIR determination has got me back in the ring :)


    This sad myth about that Nurses Eat Their Young has been around for a long time. I heard it in nursing school 20 years ago!! And I don’t think it has to do with Older Nurses picking on the poor Newer Nurses. I believe it has to do with how Nurses treat each other. Some believe they are better then others at their job and believe they should tell on other Nurses to get the better dollars. Why can’t we all get along!!!!…We are all in it to help people!!!….and if you think your a Nurse for the money, you have another thing coming!!…Nursing is an Art and something you are born wanting to do!!…It’s a desire to give and not take…and if all Nurses would have this desire we wouldn’t want to eat our young, but we would help and nourish our young!!

  27. mapagee

    This id definitely not a myth. Been there, done that. When I was going through this phase I was so upset I almost quit my job on the first day and cried all the way home. Then I gave myself the pep talk. I was better and tougher than this and I had been through worse things in my life. I went back to work the next day, and the next day, and I stood up for myself and showed the wolves I was not going to let them get to me. Four years later I am still there and going strong! And every time a “young new nurse” comes along, and they are having the same problem, I pull them aside and give them the same pep talk. We all need to take a stand against this kind of thing and help each other out!

  28. FranWeber

    It’s not just new nurses. It’s any nurse who is a newbie at a facility. It takes a good couple of weeks, if not months, to really learn a job. That doesn’t prevent the experienced ones from acting like animals toward the new nurses. It will stop when JACHO includes it in the their survey.

  29. emilylynn82

    I too experienced this with the position I took. I worked 5 months and thought things were going well until I figured how the entire female staff (my preceptor was male and great to work with) was undermining me and seemed to not want me there except to use me to take shifts they didn’t want. I had my son and not a single person congratulated me or even acknowledged the fact I had a baby despite up until that point they were calling/texting me constantly to work more than my part-time schedule. It’s too bad because I loved working there with the patients and probably would’ve gone back after my brief leave if they had treated me as a person and not someone to dump all over :-( I will say unfortunately it is like that in most predominately female workplaces. If I didn’t have a choice about staying home I would’ve just sucked it up and dealt with it hopefully working to one day become an equal.

  30. panda1986

    Sad, but true. Nurses are the biggest bullies around. I actually was bullied all through grade school, then, when I graduated high school I went through a medical technology program that trained me for a job working directly with nurses. When I say it was the worst experience of my life, believe me, it was true. Then I went to nursing school and endured more bullying and abuse. I have all kind of self worth issues because of what I have endured all through my childhood and nursing career. I absolutely doubt myself after being a nurse for years. It still haunts me. To the author of the piece, sorry you are looking at things throgh rose colored glasses, but nurses eating their young, and even their co workers, is true. Nursing is a very nasty environment.

  31. eristaf14

    I am leaving the nursing profession after 20 years- One of the reasons is the bullying. I am now taking
    care of a sick family member and I cannot handle the stress from my job ( i.e.heavy work load, lack of nursing assistants, and nurses that are bullies will not change the way they are) I have worked in home care,
    SNF and acute and this problem is everywhere. I don’t think it is about being new or inexperienced. It is
    about different personality traits and they think if you are polite or thoughtful you are a weak person=not a good nurse or an incompetent nurse. They like to find fault in others because they are lacking in themselves.
    The sad thing is they are hurting the patients.

  32. Joe Kelly

    Yes, unfortunately they do! It is still alive and kicking. The last thing a new grad needs is a mean spirited nurse to knock them down, break them in, or whatever form of hazing you call it. I went through it, and I absolutely refuse to treat another nurse that way. It should be our duty to inspire, support, and comfort other nurse’s, not bend them as far to see if they are resilient. Unfortunately this is still very common. Look no further then your magazine’s own writer, Mr. Dent. That line of grow a set of balls or nursing isn’t for you, is harassing, flawed, and outdated.

  33. mary.west

    This doesn’t just apply to new nurses: it applies to student nurses. I know I’m learning, but I’m still a person. We are easy victims because we have no credibility by virtue of being students. I was recently on a cardiac surgery ICU, and this one nurse is a new graduate herself. You would think that would make her more sympathetic, but instead, she smiled to my face, acted like she really wanted to help me learn, and then bad-mouthed me to my instructor and her whole unit, trying to turn the unit and its nurse manager against me. It would be one thing if, while hurtful, all of what she said was true, but she twisted facts, exaggerated, and threw in a couple of lies for good measure. And because it’s an ICU, my instructor is only there periodically because she also has to check on the other students. Luckily my instructor is smart enough that she didn’t buy the whole thing, but it did enough damage that I could tell she has doubts about me now. This nurse accused me of disappearing all the time, when I stick so close to my nurses every time, I often don’t even eat lunch. It was hateful. She didn’t have to like me, but now it’s like she wants to destroy me, and she’s so fake about it. It reminds me of the plastics on “Mean Girls”.