As New Jersey continues to see a high rate of heroin-related deaths among young people, many parents seem to be ignorant of the epidemic, or perhaps in complete denial about their own child's drug use.

Drug user taking in heroin with syringe (Burlingham, ThinkStock)

According to Larry Litras, a social worker and clinical addiction specialist at the Carrier Clinic in Belle Meade, parents need to begin to have the "drug discussion" with their kids when they're young. He recommended that parents talk to their kids in junior high school or even before.

"The discussion should be honest and straight-forward," Litras said. "We have it very matter-of-factly, we have it very clearly and we have it prior to our suspicion of drug use. If we wait to have these discussions when they're in their teens, it's often much more of an uphill climb."

Most kids will start using drugs because it's part of their social scene, but they keep using them because they feel more complete and competent, according to Litras.

"We want our kids to feel self-confident before they start using drugs, so they don't need to use them," Litras said.


Click below to read stories in our recent “Heroin Wasteland” series and. Tune in or listen live on NJ1015.com on Tuesday at 7 p.m. as we present a special installment of NJ 101.5's Town Hall series on the heroin epidemic:


So what are some of the signs parents can look for if they think their child might be using drugs?

Litras said everyone has a normal baseline, a normal way of doing things, and if that suddenly changes it can be a sign of drug use.

"When we see the quiet kid become loud or the loud kid become quiet or the sociable kid become more aggressive, we have to start asking these questions," Litras said, "When they start to display traits that are opposite of what's normal for them, we have to start asking these questions."

Another indication is a shift in a child's peer group. If parents notice that their child is hanging around a new set of kids, that could be indicative of an underlying issue.

Isolation is another indicator of a problem.

While drug use often starts out as a social event done with other kids, it becomes more of a "solo sport" when kids are after the escape, and not the social interaction.

To lessen the chances of kids becoming involved in drugs, efforts should be made to stop them from using prescription painkillers, like Vicodin and Oxycontin, that can lead to heroin addiction. Litras said parents should be aware of what medicines are in the house and make access more difficult.

And the conversation shouldn't just end in the home.

Litras said grandparents need to made aware of the risk and included in the process because they often are using the types of medicines that young kids are after.

"That generation, when they start suffering from aches and pains, may also be given this type of prescription medication that can be abused by teens," Litras said.

Last year there were 781 heroin-related deaths in the Garden State, the fourth straight year that deaths have increased.