Nurses Don't Eat Their Young - Unless You Believe It

Submitted by Vanessa B. Smith, BA, RN

Tags: stereotype early nurse conditioning leadership in nursing management working relationship

Nurses Don't Eat Their Young - Unless You Believe It

Share Article:

“Nurses eat their young,” they told us.  “Fake it till you make it,” they guided us.  “The first year of being a nurse has the most stress and highest burn-out rate of any other year being a nurse,” they warned us.  “If you can’t take the heat…”…well, you get the idea.  Nursing is indeed a stressful and overwhelming enterprise to enter into, and the new nurse graduate is one that understands this better than anyone.  How much of that outlook however, is brainwashed into us?  If we went into the field with none of these preconceived notions, would we believe this to be true?  Or, as I will assert, does the simple pre-warning system of our educators perpetuate this nursing culture making us overly analyze our fellow nurses’ actions.  Does this notion that we will be veritably eaten alive make us too cautious in our insecurities as a new nurse to ask for the help from our wiser counterparts that we need to overcome this first year of nursing?

I, as a new nurse, decided right away that I would trust my fellow nurses and never pretend to understand something I did not fully comprehend.  In my point of view, even if I appear stupid, at least I am imparting no damage to my patient through my lack of knowledge because I will always ask for the help I need first.  I received a lot of feedback regarding this behavior.  I was told that I was asking, “good questions.”  Those experienced nurses that assisted me would check in later to see if I was “doing alright.”  They followed my progress and remained interested in my continued journey and education.  As they saw what areas I excelled in which I needed little to no guidance, they started to ask for my help or advice in those areas.  They saw that since I asked for help right away that I got tasks done faster than other new nurses because I didn’t waste the time trying to figure out how to do it myself first.  

Once I had the tasks down, my next enterprise was to discover how to improve my time management and performance.  I watched other nurses and how they organized their shifts.  I asked their advice on how they were able to get certain tasks done expeditiously or how they were able to get through all their patient assessments in a timely matter.  I took these notes and ran with them, albeit not all of them worked the same way for me.  I was told by the end of the year that I wasn’t like a “new nurse at all.”  That I acted like someone that had been doing this for years.  

The truth as I believe it, is that new nurses are prepped to believe that nurses are judgmental creatures that will not help them and will “eat them alive.”  As nurses grow in practice, you’ll see even the oldest nurses requesting advice and help from their counterparts.  The mere fact that I engaged other nurses, did not pretend to understand anything in which I did not have full comprehension made me more like a weathered nurse than a newbie.  I learned faster, became part of a team faster, and embodied the characteristics of experienced nurses sooner.  This was not because I was more intelligent than the eleven other newbie nurses that were hired on my floor at the same time, rather it is because I chose to ignore the preparatory warning system and to allow myself to be a new nurse leaning on wiser nurses for help.  

Other nurses I went to school with have complained that experienced nurses don’t make time for them and that they feel lost and uncertain.  They believe that “nurses eat their young” and that experienced nurses are too busy and that they get “snapped at” when they ask questions.  Experienced nurses have confided in me that they believe most new nurses are “overly confident,” and that it’s obvious when they are “pretending to understand” and that it’s frustrating for the experienced nurse to stand by and not be able to do anything about what they believe to be the “ineffective patient care” that is occurring by the newbie nurse.  This is quite a disconnect and somehow one that I did not experience myself.  This leads me to believe that the difference must therefore be that I was open from the very beginning.  I was always the first to admit, “I’ll be honest, I’ve only read about doing that task, I have never actually done it…can you assist me the first time I do it when you have a moment?”  I found the result of just this one statement to be exclusively positive in every interaction in which I used it.  Experienced nurses would always help me and often with a smile.

Why are we teaching our students that nurses eat their young?  Is it possible that we are perpetuating the very stereotype that will convince the new nurse that this is happening to him or her?  If we instead fostered a new stereotype of the experienced nurse guiding the new nurse with a smile, how would things change including the happiness and culture of nursing in general?  If one does a literature search you can find dozens of articles on bullying in nursing and how to defend against it.  One will find very few articles on how to teach a new nurse to relate to an experienced nurse or that an experienced nurse should be your advocate, educator, friend, and lifeline. 

To begin to tackle this problem I will quote The Sound of Music, “Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start” (Wise, 1965).  Let’s change the way we educate new nurses.  From this newbie nurse’s standpoint, a change in perspective can mean everything.

Works Cited

  1. Wise, R. (Director). (1965). The Sound of Music [Motion Picture].