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Do Nurses Really “Eat Their Young”? 

Do Nurses Really “Eat Their Young”? 

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “nurses eat their young.”

What does that even mean? And is it true?

Here’s some food for thought.

Is “Eating Their Young” Just an Unfortunate Saying?

In her 1986 article, Nurses: are we eating our young?, Judith Meissner, RN, coined the phrase. Meissner wanted to change what she saw as open hostility that new nurses faced from experienced coworkers.

She followed up with another article in 1999, Nurses. Are we still eating our young? and asserted that this dynamic is still an unfortunate problem with the profession. She explained that students, new graduates, even new hires, received treatment from those in the “caring profession” that was anything but caring. 

Nurses “eating their young” can look like:

  • Bullying
  • Hazing
  • Initiation
  • Workplace incivility

Nurses coming into a new setting, new hospital, or new floor sometimes feel eaten alive. New grads coming out of school may not be comfortable with common procedures like putting in Foleys and NG tubes. And they do not know many of the tips and tricks that seasoned nurses have learned. Rather than finding supportive mentors in the colleagues around them, they are met with mean behaviors or harsh words. Novice nurses are left to figure things out themselves or given difficult patients and situations to handle alone. 

A recent article on nursing ethics found that at least one in three newly graduated nurses is the victim of the conflict, known as horizontal violence, from coworkers. All of this can lead to a hostile work environment, or at the very least, create a lot of stress for nurses to cope with

Why Do Nurses Eat Their Young?

You’ve likely witnessed the dynamics of older nurses being hard on newer nurses. Some can be unforgiving, unhelpful, or downright rude. But why is that? The real reasons are complex.

Some believe it’s normal for nurses to “eat their young.” Perhaps older nurses were met with bad attitudes from colleagues when they started their careers. So now it’s only fair that the new kids on the block have the same experience.

Nurses may eat their young because of a sense of entitlement. Older nurses may feel that they have paid their dues. So now it’s time to give the new, young, inexperienced nurses difficult or undesirable jobs. Then they can sit back and watch, or just take it easy.

Sometimes treatment of new nurses can stem from prejudice. Experienced nurses may assume that new nurses are unteachable, arrogant, or lazy. And then they decide they are not going to help them. 

Do Nurses Have To Eat Their Young?

No, of course not. There are some solutions to help change this unfortunate reality and improve the profession. When it comes to nurses eating their young, organizations can work to prevent this type of bullying culture in the workplace with:

  • Programs to support new nurses
  • Professional development for all nurses
  • Encouragement for acts of kindness

And finally, it comes down to the individual. The saying goes, be the change you want to see. It’s up to the individuals to model good behavior. 

Advice to my new nurses: Be open to challenges, and appreciate colleagues who take you under their wings. Show respect for everyone you work with, especially your elders. 

And to my old (experienced) nurses out there: Empathize. No matter how long you’ve been a nurse, you can remember what it felt like when you started your career. Nursing school was demanding. The board exam was challenging. Then you started your first job without a clue what you were getting into. Those memories may just soften your heart and your demeanor.

In Conclusion

Next time you see a nurse eating their young, you can choose to let that be the culture, or you can make Judith Meissner proud, and inspire change. What will you decide?

Do you have a story of your own? Were your colleagues helpful or harsh when you started? Share below! If you enjoyed your break today, subscribe to our blog for more like this, and don’t forget to like and follow on social media.

Sarah Falcone BSN, RN

Sarah Falcone BSN, RN


Sarah S. Falcone BSN, RN is a dedicated nurse based in Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX. Her first nursing gig, was night-shift floor nurse in women's services (PP, L&D, nursery). Through a series of fortunate events, she found home health and a passion for helping seniors age in place. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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