Two nurses in a classroom.

Why Do Nurses Eat Their Young?

The term “eating their young” is a metaphor used to describe the phenomenon of experienced nurses mistreating and bullying new nurses. This behavior, although not literal, can have detrimental effects on the nursing profession as a whole. It is essential to understand the factors contributing to this behavior and explore strategies to prevent it from happening.

The Origin of the Term

The term “eating their young” originated from observations in the animal kingdom, where certain species exhibit cannibalistic behavior towards their offspring. In the nursing profession, this phrase is used metaphorically to describe how some experienced nurses mistreat and bully new nurses.

The Impact of Bullying on New Nurses

Bullying is a significant issue in the nursing profession, with studies showing that up to 85% of nurses experience bullying at some point in their careers. The hierarchical nature of nursing, combined with the high-stress environment, can contribute to this toxic behavior. Bullying can occur between nurses at the same hierarchical level, but it is often perpetrated by experienced nurses against new nurses.

Bullying has severe consequences for new nurses. It can lead to emotional distress, decreased job satisfaction, and even physical health problems. New nurses who experience bullying are more likely to leave their jobs or the nursing profession altogether, resulting in a loss of valuable talent and experience. Additionally, bullying negatively affects the quality of patient care, as new nurses may feel too intimidated to ask for help or advocate for their patients.

Factors that Contribute to Nurses “Eating their Young”

The Stressful Nature of the Nursing Profession

Nursing is a demanding and high-stress profession, with long hours, understaffing, and emotionally challenging situations. The stress experienced by experienced nurses can sometimes manifest as mistreatment towards new nurses. The pressure to perform at a high level, combined with the frustration of the job, can lead to the “eating their young” behavior.

Lack of Adequate Mentoring and Support

New nurses often require guidance and support to transition smoothly into their roles. However, the lack of adequate mentoring and support programs in healthcare organizations contributes to the mistreatment of new nurses. Without proper guidance, experienced nurses may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of teaching and supporting new nurses, leading to frustration and mistreatment.

The Generational Gap

The nursing profession is witnessing a generational gap, with younger nurses entering the workforce and experienced nurses nearing retirement. This generational gap can contribute to conflicts between different age groups, as each may have different perspectives, values, and approaches to patient care. The lack of understanding and communication between generations can lead to bullying and mistreatment.

The Consequences of “Eating Their Young” on the Nursing Profession

Impact on New Nurse Retention

The mistreatment and bullying experienced by new nurses contribute to high turnover rates in the profession. New nurses who are mistreated are more likely to leave their jobs or even the nursing profession altogether. The loss of new nurses not only hinders their personal growth but also results in a shortage of nurses, putting additional strain on the healthcare system.

Effect on the Quality of Patient Care

Bullying and mistreatment in the nursing profession have a direct impact on the quality of patient care. New nurses who are bullied may feel too intimidated to ask for help or seek clarification, leading to errors and compromised patient safety. Additionally, the stressful work environment created by “eating their young” behavior can cause experienced nurses to become burnt out and less attentive to patient needs, further compromising the quality of care provided.

Strategies for Preventing Nurses from “Eating Their Young”

The Role of Nursing Schools

Nursing schools play a crucial role in preparing new nurses for the challenges they may face in the profession. By incorporating education and training programs that address bullying and mistreatment, nursing schools can help new nurses develop the skills and resilience needed to navigate these difficult situations. Additionally, nursing schools can promote teamwork and collaboration among students to foster positive relationships and support networks.

The Importance of Workplace Policies

Healthcare organizations must have clear and enforceable workplace policies that address bullying and mistreatment. These policies should outline the consequences for engaging in such behavior and provide a safe reporting system for victims.

The Power of Mentorship and Support in Nursing

Mentorship programs are essential in providing new nurses with the guidance and support they need to thrive in their roles. Experienced nurses can serve as mentors to new nurses, offering advice, sharing knowledge, and providing emotional support.

Additionally, organizations can implement peer support programs where new nurses can connect with each other and share their experiences. Peer support can provide a sense of camaraderie and understanding, helping new nurses navigate the challenges they face and build resilience.


Q: How can nurses advocate for themselves if they are being mistreated by experienced nurses?
If you are being mistreated by experienced nurses, it is important to advocate for yourself. Start by documenting specific incidents, including dates, times, and details of the mistreatment. Take this information to your immediate supervisor or nurse manager and explain your concerns. If the issue persists or is not adequately addressed, escalate it to higher levels of management or the human resources department. Remember, you have the right to work in a safe and respectful environment, and speaking up is essential in addressing mistreatment.

Q: Are there any professional organizations or support groups for nurses who have experienced mistreatment?
Yes, there are professional organizations and support groups dedicated to supporting nurses who have experienced mistreatment. Look for organizations such as the American Nurses Association (ANA) or specialty-specific nursing associations. These organizations often have resources, such as hotlines or online forums, where you can seek advice, share your experiences, and connect with others who have faced similar situations. Additionally, consider reaching out to local nursing associations or unions for support and guidance.

Q: What can nursing leaders do to prevent the mistreatment of new nurses in their healthcare organizations?
Nursing leaders have a crucial role in preventing the mistreatment of new nurses. They can start by establishing a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and mistreatment in their organizations. This policy should be communicated clearly to all staff members, and the consequences for engaging in such behavior should be outlined. Nursing leaders should also ensure that there are adequate mentoring and support programs in place for new nurses, and that experienced nurses understand their role in supporting and guiding new nurses.

Q: How can new nurses build resilience and cope with mistreatment from experienced nurses?
Building resilience is essential for new nurses facing mistreatment. Seek support from colleagues, friends, and family who can provide a listening ear and offer advice. Engage in self-care activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies. Consider seeking counseling or therapy to process your experiences and develop coping strategies. Additionally, focus on your strengths and accomplishments as a nurse, and remind yourself that mistreatment from others is not a reflection of your worth or abilities.

Q: Are there any legal protections in place for nurses who experience mistreatment or bullying?
Yes, there are legal protections in place for nurses who experience mistreatment or bullying. Workplace laws, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibit harassment and discrimination in the workplace, including bullying. If you have experienced mistreatment that violates these laws, you may have grounds for legal action. Consult with an employment lawyer or contact your local labor board to understand your rights and options.

Q: How can nursing schools incorporate education on bullying prevention into their curriculum?
Nursing schools can incorporate education on bullying prevention into their curriculum by including it as a dedicated topic in nursing courses. Professors can provide lectures, case studies, and group discussions on the topic of bullying, its impact on nurses and patient care, and strategies for prevention. Additionally, nursing schools can invite guest speakers, such as experienced nurses or healthcare administrators, to share their insights and experiences with bullying in the profession.

Q: What role can experienced nurses play in preventing the mistreatment of new nurses?
Experienced nurses play a crucial role in preventing the mistreatment of new nurses. They can serve as mentors and guides, providing support and guidance to new nurses as they navigate their roles. Experienced nurses should model respectful behavior and actively discourage mistreatment or bullying in the workplace.