Stress is turning kids into pencil-chewing, teeth-gritting bundles of nerves, according to experts who say such problems in early elementary school can lead to increased teen drug use, sex and suicide.

A survey of more than 4,000 Kansas kindergarten through third graders showed that 42 percent experienced "negative stress behavior," which includes headaches, inability to sleep, biting fingernails, worrying about doing poorly in school, stomach aches and short tempers, said Darrel Lang, director of the Center of Health Promotion and Wellness at Emporia State University."Here we are in Kansas, the middle of the country, conservative, the pace is slower," said Lang. "My feeling is that in larger communities in more populated states, the stress levels in kids are much higher."

Because stress ingrained at an early age generally remains with children, the consequences in teen age can be devastating, he said.

"Kids are more stressed out today because our society has more stress," said Lang. "It's a reflection of the society in which we live. A lot of people think stress is an adult condition. Well, it's not."

The stress kids are under in early childhood, from domineering parents to broken homes to a more competitive society, is leading children to higher rates of suicide, pregnancy and substance abuse, and to dropout and health problems, experts say.

The causes of stress are as varied as the consequences, but experts agree the No. 1 source of kid stress is at home.

"If a child goes from a warm home to a cold school, they have a chance of surviving. If they come from a warm home to a warm school, of course they will make it, but if they come from a cold home to a cold school, there is no way they will make it," said Margaret Fitch, an assistant superintendent from Omaha, Neb., who addressed a meeting on stress late last month.

The problem has grown worse, educators say, because of an increasingly competitive society and the growing number of single-parent families - all of which contribute to a lack of communication.

Another source of stress is parents who treat their children as status symbols and instill a belief in the children that they must behave right, wear the right clothes, make the right grades and have the right friends.

"Those parents give their children conditional love," Nelson said. "They say, we will love you if . . . "

Stressed children generally remain stressed as teens, he said. "They can turn to drugs at an earlier age to reduce stress, engage in sexual activities at an earlier age, and it naturally leads to higher rates of suicide."