AIMS AND OBJECTIVES To explore how qualified children's nurses define, interpret and give meaning to their work with unaccompanied children in hospital. BACKGROUND Unaccompanied children are amongst the most vulnerable of the hospital population yet there is little insight into the strategies nurses use to work with them. DESIGN A qualitative study. METHODS Tape recorded unstructured interviews with four qualified children's nurses. The interviews focused on stories from the participants' experiences of working with unaccompanied hospitalized children. Transcribed interviews were analyzed for narrative structure to expose how the participants interpreted and gave meaning to their experiences. FINDINGS The participants' interpretations of the child 'alone' advance previous understandings. The stories unfold into interpreted meanings that shed light on the participant's experiences of sadness and distress. RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE The strategy of differentiating between being a nurse and being a parent emerges as an important strategy in interpreting professional boundaries. The conventional meaning of 'emotional distancing' is further advanced by the participants' resiliency at remaining emotionally available to the children and parents in their stories. Further research into the emotional aspects of working with children in hospital is warranted.