It’s not hard to see that male toxicity causes many of the world’s problems. It’s often the centerpiece of wars and religion, as well as leading to bullying, domestic abuse, and sexual assault, while also thriving in less obvious forms such as sports, comedy, and Star Wars subreddits. But women and others along the gender spectrum aren’t the only ones who suffer from this toxicity—men are its victims as well, since the pressure to conform to stereotypical cultural norms often result in depression, stress, substance abuse, and even suicide. While educating adults about how toxic behavior harms everyone can help mitigate the problem, a more favorable solution could lie in stopping male toxicity before it takes root in young boys.

Christy Wheeler is a counselor at Benson High School in Portland, as well as a recipient of Oregon’s Counselor of the Year. During her previous tenure as a counselor at Sellwood Middle School, she and other members of the administration became alarmed at a sudden uptick in homophobic language and hate speech among boy students.

“We would hear them say things like ‘man up,’ ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘there are only two genders,’ or refer to other boys as ‘pussies,’” Wheeler says. “The administrative team and I wanted a plan that would address this negative language while counteracting the stereotypes that can really harm boys.”

With the school’s help, Wheeler conducted two workshops with 7th and 8th grade males designed to open up a conversation about what happens when one is “boxed in” by gender stereotypes. Middle school is a literal divide—pre-pubescent boys play alongside youths who are ready to shave and already experiencing sexual feelings. However, both are navigating the treacherous waters of transitioning from kid to adult.

“The intention [of these workshops] was to create a safe space for boys to talk about their feelings around gender and how to break down the stereotypes they’ve been exposed to,” Wheeler says. “We talked about gender as a spectrum, and the difference between how one identifies and their sexuality. One of the ways we address gender with students is, ‘Gender is between your ears, and sex is between your legs.’”

In the cutthroat world of middle school, a boy who expresses emotion puts himself in an uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous position. Maurice Davis is the student engagement coach at Roseway Heights Middle School. Like Wheeler, he’s also been a witness to students using hurtful language especially in regard to sexuality.

“It’s groupthink,” Davis says. “These boys start riffing, speaking in a derogatory manner, and then try to top each other. Acting out gay stereotypes, joking about kissing each other or touching genitals... it’s transference. It’s a way to verbally process their confusing feelings. The downside is that it’s alienating. They’re implying that being anything other than heterosexual isn’t right.”

In an effort to allow boys a space to share legitimate fears and work through these feelings, Wheeler’s workshops also featured clips from The Mask You Live In, a documentary about young men who, according to the filmmakers, struggle to “negotiate America’s narrow definition of masculinity.” Wheeler also invited one of the documentary’s participants, Ashanti Branch, to speak at her workshops.

Branch is the founder of Ever Forward, a group dedicated to bridging the divide between young men of color and the education system. He’s also delivered several TED Talks (which you can find on YouTube) on “the masks we wear” and how middle school boys in particular feel forced into wearing a mask of perceived masculinity in order to “fit the part” of being a man—confident, self-satisfied, tough. What these boys feel less inclined to show are the hidden emotions underneath: pain, worry, insecurity. This disguise continues into adulthood, where many still wear these imaginary masks in order to feel respected by their peers.

Wheeler’s middle schoolers reacted positively to the workshops and were thankful for a forum that allowed them to honestly express their feelings.

“They exhibited a natural curiosity about the subject,” Wheeler says. “Especially when we talked about breaking down gender roles—such as the fear around a boy taking ballet. Addressing these negative stereotypes early is so important.... Male toxicity results in higher suicide rates among boys this age, as well as fights and other negative behavior that can lead to suspensions, missed school, and potentially prison.”

While these workshops are not officially part of Portland Public Schools’ curriculum, modifying and breaking down the expectations that society places on boys is a subject that local school counselors like Wheeler and Davis are very much invested in.

“It’s important for schools and adults to keep having conversations with young men,” Davis says, “while also becoming more educated and mindful. Science-based and textbook language that’s taught in school is fine, but kids process big ideas better though conversation and relatable topics. The more we as parents and adults interrupt the toxic message these kids are getting from society, the better off everyone will be.”