“Nurses eat their young.” Two sides of the story

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“Nurses eat their young”, is one of the most popular sayings in the nursing world. Most nurses become familiar with this phrase the minute they are accepted to a nursing program. The phrase has been interpreted and sometimes misinterpreted and misused for years.

But what exactly does it mean?

The answer isn’t simple: It depends on which nurse you talk to.

The phrase “nurses eat their young”, is used to describe the manner in which seasoned (experienced) nurses treat newer nurses. The new nurses could be nursing students, newly-licensed nurses, younger-aged nurses or nurses that are entering a new nursing unit for the first time.

Some new nurses will say that the phrase speaks to the demeaning and resentful manner in which they are treated by seasoned nurses. I have personally worked with a lot of nurses who remember feeling devalued during their training.

Seasoned nurses might say that the phrase figuratively speaks to the training that a new nurse has to go through in order to be an excellent nurse. It involves teaching a new nurse how to practice safely and competently within the standards of the profession, especially since human lives can be affected by their actions.

My Take

It is true that nurses have to get the required training they need to be good at their jobs. It is true that nurses who are receiving training in any clinical setting (a hospital, nursing home, clinic or private home) should be acutely aware and knowledgeable about the gravity of the responsibility that they are undertaking.  It is also true that the nurse doing the training takes on the responsibility of making sure that the care of patients is not compromised because of the inexperienced nurse who is training.

But….There is no reason why any nurse should be treated in a sub-par manner. There is no reason why a new nurse should have to be scared to interact with her preceptor (trainer), out of fear of shaming or other dismissive behaviors. This should not be tolerated in any profession, and definitely not in one of the most respected and safest careers available today. See my reasons why nursing is a great career choice.

Another Look

Now it is not just the preceptors for new nurses who are said to “eat their young”. The other nurses working in the unit or in the department for that newly-employed nurse are sometimes reported has acting negatively towards them.

I have known nurses who told me they used to cry before going to work because they felt so isolated and belittled in the units they were training on.  Some eventually left and found other employment at facilities that were more “new-nurse friendly”.

Seasoned nurses might not see anything wrong with their behavior because they believe this is the norm. Some might feel a sense of responsibility for their units and view the new nurse as a perceived threat because they are more prone to making mistakes that an experienced nurse might not make.

The passive onlookers (the nurses who don’t actively practice shaming the new nurses, but don’t interact with them either)  will say that it doesn’t make sense to cultivate a relationship with the newcomers because they will leave in six months to a year after they get trained.

nursing team

My Take

A unit that has a collaboration of nurses who can work cohesively with each other has a higher probability of positive outcomes. Okay, what does that mean? Basically, when nurses can work together as a team, fewer mistakes happen.  When I mention mistakes, I’m not talking about with patient care either. Nurses are injuring themselves instead of working within their team. Some injuries such as needle sticks, back injuries, and falls, could all have been prevented if the nurse asked for help. The new nurse is now the newest member of the team, and the other nurses and staff need to recognize them as such in order for the unit to be successful as a whole.

Nurses will leave one job for another because of better opportunities, but they should not have to leave a job because of the treatment they received from the staff. So, maybe if nurses cultivate an inclusive relationship with the new nurses, then they might be less likely to leave the unit after six to twelve months.

Taking Action

The nursing profession can be very stressful for a number of reasons, with sick patients to care for and worried family members to deal with. Nurses are trained to offer emotional support and advocate for the patients they are assigned to. Some of these patients are in the nurse’s care for one to three days out of the week. So why shouldn’t seasoned nurses advocate and support their younger counterparts?

Thankfully, not all new nurses have ever experienced the negativity that goes with the phrase “nurses eat their young”. But for the unfortunate new nurses, they have to learn to demand their respect. It might seem intimidating at first, but the nurses will learn to respect you for standing up for yourself, because of one of the great things about nurses is their ability to work as a family. Once you are accepted into the family, not just hired but actually accepted as part of the team, they will become some of your best friends (Just ask any ICU nurse). The problem arises when another new nurse gets hired, or nursing students are brought to the unit, that’s when the uglier side of some nurses comes out.

So the culture has to change. In a world where inappropriate behavior is no longer tolerated, the profession of nursing should not be immune. Shaming and disrespecting other nurses, whether it be new nurses or experienced veterans, is unacceptable and should be reprimandable. The nurses who stand innocently on the sidelines and watch this type of negative practice being carried out, are just as much to blame as the nurses who are doing it.

It is time for nurses to “nurture their young”.