Emotionally Neglected Children May Feel Like They Are Ghosts

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

[photo credit: flickr user Andrea Much]

“Emotional Neglect is the white space in the family picture; the background rather than the foreground. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.” (Dr. Jonice Webb)

Editor’s note: I use “he” because “he or she” can interrupt the flow of sentences. But abuse can happen to any gender.

An emotionally abused child may sometimes feel like a ghost in his own home. He passes through its corridors, affects its surroundings, interacts (as best as he can) with the other people in the house… but he feels like no one quite sees him.

Or listens to him.

Or understands him.

Or cares for him.

Or loves him.

People outside the house can see this child. And from the outside, these neighbors, family friends, relatives, and teachers may see this gleaming, shiny family, paragons of the community, and believe that all children in this family are loved and nurtured, their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs met.

But when the blinds are closed, when the front door’s shut, when all the windows are sealed up, and the parents have resumed their natural form, the child disappears in front of his parent.

The child feels so lonely, so very unimportant to anyone. Because home should be a place of nurturing, comforting, loving, growing, and playing. But for the emotionally neglected child, home is where you aren’t seen or heard. Home is the place you haunt.

And your parents only notice you when they want something from you. Not any other time.

Emotionally abusive parents are not always noisy gongs, overly boisterous buffoons, yelling caricatures. Some of them hurt their children by emotionally neglecting them.

When these emotionally abusive parents look at their children, the abusers see…

  • Themselves only
  • What they failed to be
  • Sources of energy, love, and approval for themselves

Here’s a more detailed look at what that all means…

Themselves Only

Abusive parents do not know, care, or understand their child. They rarely know what the child likes or dislikes, how the child reacts to things, etc. The parents only know (and care about) what makes them (not their child) happy, and they see their child through a self-reflective lens.

Examples:

Dad buys a sports jersey for his child on his birthday. But the child doesn’t like sports or the team, and has told this to his father. The father does. So, the father gets royally pissed off at child for not appreciating his token of affection.  The father never thought to dip into his knowledge about his child and purchase something that the child would love, not the parent.

Mom takes her child to acting classes because the child has such a natural talent for it. Oh, wait, no. The child hates being in front of people, hates performing, and would prefer to be behind the scenes rather than in it. Mom prefers that. The mom never considered talking to the child about what would be fun or discussing some options. It’s always about Mom, never the child.

Dad goes to visit his adult son’s house late at night for a beer because he knows how much of a night owl his son is. Wait, no. The son likes to go to bed early and has told his father this. The night owl is Dad, not son.

Mom buys tickets to go see a symphony with her daughter, who loves classical music. No, Mom loves classical music; the daughter cannot stand it. But the Mom already bought tickets for her daughter! Mom may accuse adult child of being an ingrate, being difficult, being selfish, etc. The mom never thought to ask the child, “Would you like to go to a symphony? Would you like to go with me? How does this date work for you? Would you like to do something else instead?”

These parents act like the world revolves around them. And that it should always be like that.

What They Failed to Be

These parents may talk about their children to others, but they don’t really know their own children.

Examples:

“Have you met my daughter?” Dad may tell new friends about his child. “She’s an amazing singer. Really, I think she’ll go far in her career.”

Dad himself is a terrible singer. He can’t carry a tune and knows nothing about melodies. Neither can his child. But Dad wanted to be a great opera singer, and when he sees his child, he sees his dreams fulfilled. Even if they’re not.

“My child is so popular!” Mom may say. “Honestly, the phone’s always ringing off the hook for her. You know, she’s an extrovert.”

Mom is incredibly shy and would rather stay home than go out. Her child is neither an outcast nor popular, but the mom can’t gauge when her child how her child feels because Mom wants the child to be uber-outgoing and amazing. Because mom isn’t.

These parents make assumptions about their child. They talk lies about their child. They live in delusion about who their children are.

Sources of Love and Approval

Parents should not demand love and approval from their children. Repeat: Parents should not demand love and approval from their children.

Good parents love their children and nurture their souls and bodies. These parents know that children are a gift from God and treat their children accordingly, with love, tenderness, affection, gentleness, and guidance. Good parents love their children, and that loving behavior will inspire their children to love them back.

But good parents don’t demand that their children fill up the holes in their heart or confidence or self-worth.

Abusive parents see their children as sources of love and affection. An abusive parent will have a lousy day at work and go home and vent their issues to their child and expect the child to serve as a cheerleader, a source of support, make them feel better. They expect their child to fill a role that is not meant for the child. (Often this role is meant for a spouse or a good friend. But the abusive parent will demand kindness, support, etc. from their child… all things that the parent does not provide to his own child.)

Examples:

Dad has a big fight with Mom and takes the child out for some ice cream. He tells the kid about the entire fight, demands (whether overtly or subtly) for the child to take his side, wants the kid to tell him that he’s a good person, etc. Dad doesn’t realize that the child is a child. And the child wanted to just have ice cream and play, or to hang out at home and draw. The child did not want to become Daddy’s Little Therapist.

Mom is feeling incredibly depressed. Instead of seeking help or taking the right meds (if needed) or calling up a friend, Mom manipulates her child to attend to all her needs, to treat her as if she were a fragile and delicate thing that needs to be pampered. Mom doesn’t care about the child and how that freaks out a kid to take on that role; Mom needs a parent and the neglected child will become that substitute parent.

Emotional Neglect

All the above are examples of emotional neglect.

“Emotional Neglect is, in some ways, the opposite of mistreatment and abuse,” writes Dr. Jonice Webb. “Whereas mistreatment and abuse are parental acts, Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable.”

And though it’s an act of omission, it is quite damaging…

“Psychological neglect, though less obvious [than physical neglect], is just as serious,” writes Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. “Children who are constantly ignored, rejected, threatened, or belittled grow up without the inner resources that everyone needs to cope with difficult times.”

That emotional neglect leaves children vulnerable to such terrible relationships and situations.

“When children get little or no affection and physical comfort, they are vulnerable to anyone who will give them attention,” writes Hartwell-Walker. “Often they become sitting ducks for people who exploit them.”

That’s one reason so many emotionally neglected children end up as adult survivors in hard relationships or in tough situations. They often just want someone, ANYONE, to see them to hear them. And they often cannot discern who is toxic to them or who will be a good person. So, they often fall for people who will treat them with the same level of disinterest that their own parents exhibited.

Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Symptoms of childhood emotional neglect that show up in adults may include (but are not limited to):

  • “Numbing out” or being cut off from one’s feelings
  • Feeling like there’s something missing, but not being sure what it is
  • Feeling hollow inside
  • Being easily overwhelmed or discouraged
  • Low self-esteem
  • Perfectionism
  • Pronounced sensitivity to rejection
  • Lack of clarity regarding others’ expectations and your own expectations for yourself

However, adult survivors can heal and get to the point where they have emotionally healthy lives.

Adult survivors of emotional child abuse can find a better way, a brightly lit path, through counseling, reading about healing, talking to others in a support group, praying, etc.

You can heal in time. You can learn to re-parent yourself.

If you were an invisible child at home, know that you are not doomed to be forever invisible. Just because your parents lacked the intelligence, compassion, or just very basic human instinct of nurturing their young, that doesn’t mean you aren’t real, that you don’t matter, that you are unworthy.

Because you are worthy. As a human being, you have dignity. You matter.

Perhaps not to your parents, and that’s a very tragic truth to accept. It’s hard and terrible. Almost no one will understand what you mean when you tell people that your parents are “toxic” for you… but the readers here at The Invisible Scar do. I do.

You’re not alone.

We see you. We hear you.


veronica-jarski-managing-editor-the-invisible-scarVeronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, MarketingProfs, and Ragan. She also is the author of an e-book about waking up to the realization that one had an emotionally abusive childhood.

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30 thoughts on “Emotionally Neglected Children May Feel Like They Are Ghosts

  1. Thank you for this post, and the resources offered on the blog. I have lived through and beyond horrendous abuse. I made the decision to not only survive my life, but to live it to the fullest. At age 62 I still experience flashbacks. People need to understand the depth of damage and long term impact it has on not only the life of the abused, but the lives of all those who interact on a deep level with that person.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your blog and for telling our stories. I just keep thinking, “Exactly, exactly, exactly.” Writing (and reading) about how it really is/was is a real and effective antidote to the family myths we were supposed to parrot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sophie,

      You’re very welcomed. And “family myths we were supposed to parrot” is a most excellent phrase.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Like

  3. Thanks for this.
    Emotional abuse at the hands of one’s parents is both insidious and seemingly endless. So many things trigger those helpless/hopeless feelings. (today has been “one of those days”)
    I appreciate the effort you put into this page, it grants me a great deal of encouragement.

    Like

    • Barbara,

      The subject is such an entanglement of issues and behaviors and sorrows. It does seem endless.

      I’m so sorry that today has been one of those days. May the ones that follow NOT be those types of days.

      Onward and upward, Barbara.

      Like

  4. Great post… Sadly, a lot of the things you said hit the nail perfectly on the head for me. It was rather nice to read this to better understand what I’ve been through myself, even though I lack most of my childhood memories. I’ve only been healing for the past 2+ years (26 years old now) and I want to say that you are definitely correct in saying that adult survivors of emotional neglect can heal. It’s never too late to start the healing process, but the sooner the better…

    Like

    • I’m glad the article was helpful in some way.

      And true, true. The readers here span from people in their very early 20s to folks in their 80s. I’ve received emails from people of all ages and the message that rings through those emails is that healing is hard but healing is possible.

      Never too late to get on the road to being emotionally healthy.

      Like

  5. Eek. Just reading the latest post makes my heart flutter disturbingly and I get a choking feeling in my throat and I left home close to 40 years ago. Sometimes the reminders take me back to that anxious and demoralising state of childhood when I knew I was different and no one was there to notice how much I was suffering. If I could have had just one person who really cared about me – there were no grandparents or aunties or uncles about. I married young into a toxic relationship with a BPD alcoholic narcissist that my parents thought was wonderful. I’ve survived though and it’s been a very difficult journey with great heartache. What saved me? My 3 wonderful children. We all suffered under the reign of the emotionally abusive ex husband but have stuck together and we are all living good but scarred lives. I am still working on getting my head into a positive state. The PTSD waves its ugly head in and out still. All my children say they had the most wonderful and happy childhoods so I did something right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry that it brought forth such memories. I write about difficult things here on The Invisible Scar in the hope that someone will feel less lonely, more understood, more hopeful, and encouraged to find resources for healing.

      Your road sounds difficult, but it’s good that you’re “working on getting your head into a positive state.” Know that you remain in my thoughts and prayers.

      Like

  6. Nice article thanks. I wish there had been a website like this, when I was young. I had a whole family telling me that I was ungrateful for saying that I was treated badly. This confused me. I became semi-estranged from my family and suppressed talking about the past to them. I went through feeling angry (when I felt I was right) and feeling guilty (when I wasn’t sure). Flipping between these 2 emotions, went on daily for over 20 years.

    Many of the articles describe my parents’ behaviour almost exactly and the symptoms that I have suffered almost exactly.

    If I had read this stuff 20 years ago, I would have had a lot more clarity of what had happened and what was happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have you ever seen “Tangled”? There’s a scene where the main character, Rapunzel, first breaks out of the tower and she goes through this whole conflict of “I’m free! I’m out of the tower!” and “I am the worst daughter ever. I’m breaking my mother’s heart.”

      The conflict is real and painful and strong.

      Sorry to hear that you’ve suffered so. Know you’re not alone…

      Like

      • I looked up Tangled and saw the clip. Yes, it is similar. The difference is that, the character met someone who understood and they lived happily ever after.

        The reality isn’t like that. Emotionally, you come out of that upbringing insecure. There are just so many ways you can mess up your adult life. You are likely to meet a partner, who understands, but turns out to have character traits of your parents or worse. You give them too much trust, when you should have just left.

        If you have one or more relationships like that and then meet the right person, you can mess it up. This is because your trust of people is so low after that upbringing and an adult relationship that was as bad as your childhood. Therefore, you don’t commit and give them the security that normal people give.

        Add to that, parents who disapprove of your relationships and your emotions are pulling you apart, when you should be happy.

        Eventually, you can end up alone out of choice. It’s difficult and empty but relationships are stressful in a different way.

        I’m not saying this happens to everyone but I think it is a much more probable storyline.

        Like

      • Hello, I’m replying to 25yearson’s comment below that hasn’t got a reply button on it! I just wanted to say I feel for you and have been there. First romantic relationship textbook early and textbook dysfunctional, especially after the guy had financial power over me (because I could no longer get student allowance after he got into the workforce, and the change of that power dynamic turned him into a fully-fledged sociopath…although the seeds of that were there already, e.g. I was told later on that he used to tie cats to railway lines as a kid, you never would have known on surface inspection though, typically charming and a chameleon and everyone thought the sun shone out of his backside and I was the problem, but he was definitely someone who enjoyed having power over someone and humiliating and undermining them when he had them in a situation they could not easily escape, like financial dependence). My abusive upbringing hadn’t taken my confidence in the way that this seven-year relationship did (two of those years like something from a horror show). It was just such a shock that it could happen again, plus all the practical problems of extricating myself and the adverse effects on my employment at the time. I’d gotten through my childhood working hard academically for my escape ticket and thinking, “All this will be different when I am independent and grown up”, and I’d been positive and resilient and forward-looking.

        It took a year or two to recover that bounce after that experience, and for safety I chose to live on my own and not enter into any more romantic relationships for the next seven years, since I knew I was still involuntarily attracted to the wrong kinds of people. And yes, I had a few more dysfunctional experiences when I got back into dating, but none of them lasted as long or had the impact that the first bad relationship had done, and I learnt from them. Living on my own for many years was actually a really good thing because it allowed me the space to grow as a person, away from dysfunction, and eventually I knew the red flags when dating and made mate selection consciously cerebral, and then… in my mid thirties I met the person who is now my husband of nearly a decade, and I still pinch myself that I am in a healthy, supportive, lasting, really enjoyable and enriching relationship with a decent person who is neither a narcissist, or a sociopath, or a psychopath. It took half a lifetime.

        I totally agree that living on your own is infinitely preferable to having a dysfunctional, or even an average, relationship, and that it serves as immunisation against further dysfunctional romantic experiences. Also by the time I met my husband I was in theory fine with spending the rest of my life single, even though I preferred the idea of meeting someone genuinely decent I could click with.

        And funnily, it wasn’t until seven years into that marriage, and being safe within a family for the first time in my life, that my subconscious started giving me access to the displaced emotions from my childhood abuse for the first time and I was diagnosed with CPTSD. I learnt that I had spent my early life building such a strong fortress against all the cruelty and distress and loneliness I faced as a child, and concentrating on my intellect as my escape plan… that I had had to put the emotions aside just to be able to go on, because to feel them would have paralysed me. So, for most of my first forty years, I could talk about what had happened, with fine detail, but feel nothing in the recount, apart from an abstract sense of injustice. But I’d cry at the drop of a hat during sad movies, or when I saw people hurting in real life. Yet could never feel that for what I’d been through. And I’d had unexplained nightmares all my life, nightmares I could not remember the imagery of, but that would wake me up in full fight-or-flight, in a cold sweat, with my heart racing. They didn’t even register as nightmares at the time, but it was so clearly an adrenaline reaction that my GP investigated if maybe I had sleep apnoea or hypoglycaemia creating a physiological emergency in the night to provoke that kind of response, since it was apparently unconnected to any real-world anxiety or worry.

        It was still a mystery when the images started coming back with the nightmares last Christmas, and then it finally became crystal clear what was going on. And interestingly, when that happened I determined to go superficial contact only (and potentially no contact in the future) with my parents, with whom I’d had a really painful and dispiriting relationship for all of my adulthood, in which I tried, although with decreasing effort and time, to build a decent relationship with them. Guess what? You can’t have what they don’t know how to have, or probably even want to have. Remembering put me back in touch with my earliest years of pain and with growing anger on behalf of that little child I had been, and that was the best emotional fortification for finally giving up on that fantasy relationship with them, and for refusing to give any more time or effort to a lost cause, and using that for truly positive things instead. It wasn’t until I felt the anger and grief for the little child that my emotional chains to my parents really dropped off me. I’d intellectually tried to sever these chains all my life, but the best I’d been able to do was to press the pause button by living interstate and overseas, where I was removed from excessive interactions with them by default.

        To anyone who hasn’t yet managed to shake off the unreasonable guilt and shame, I recommend strongly to at least push PAUSE instead and strongly limit interactions with abusers / past abusers by design, and by choice. I only ever grew as a person when the pause button was on, and each contact with my birth family would set me back significantly, and observing that pattern I decided it was good to live abroad. Physical distance (and no phone if necessary) is a reasonable substitute for, and promoter of, emotional distance, which is harder to reach.

        I do agree with you that the outcome you have described is, for many survivors of childhood abuse, statistically more likely. But, it’s not necessarily so either. It’s a pity that in the Rapunzel story there is this kind of abbreviated ending where the young princess is found by a lovely young prince and they live happily ever after, just like that. It sets up totally unrealistic expectations, when people should know it’s not an easy road to emotionally healthy relationships, when you’ve grown up in an emotional war zone and place of intellectually-hard-to-access brainwash (it acts on a subconscious level).

        If I had the choice, I’d have been born to emotionally healthy parents. But none of us unfortunately have that as a choice, that one is a lottery. If I had a choice I would have at least gone to boarding school (the devil you don’t know perhaps?) or been adopted or fostered by people who were emotionally healthy. But that was not on the cards, and also the fostering process just results in more abuse for too many children from abusive families. The only choice that’s mine to make in about all that is the choice to live a healthy life, and to grow as a person, in spite of the background; and to treat other human beings with decency. And although I’m not entirely sure it was worth the price, I do know that as a result of my background I take so much more joy in the things that matter in life than the average person who has not been through this wringer; and also I have an empathy and a radar with which I can help others, which I would not have otherwise had.

        I just want to wish you well, and send you all the best, from a fellow survivor.

        Like

  7. Pingback: Emotionally Neglected Children May Feel Like They Are Ghosts | Jean Brunson

  8. Many thanks to you, Veronica, for your insight. Although I’m 65, I still weep when I flashback to my narcissistic parents, their apparent hatred for each other, and choosing favorite children. I have two sisters (both older) left, and the way they sometimes treat me is a continuum of that with which we grew up. Neither one seems to have grown past what we experienced as children. It is difficult, sometimes impossible, to overcome the lack of self-esteem and discouragement. I will forgive, however, the forgetting is not there yet. Thank God every day that I am intelligent, willing to learn, and willing to accept. My support to everyone who has invisible scars.
    Thanks again.

    Like

    • Mary,

      You’re very welcomed.

      So sorry to hear about your sisters and parents, the whole thing…

      How encouraging to readers here, though, to see your comment that it is not impossible to overcome the lack of self-esteem and discouragement.

      Blessings to you and yours.

      Like

  9. My emotionally abusing mother suggested we go to counseling together. In the session I laid all my cards on the table. Evidently she couldn’t handle it and “needs time to heal.” She has now cut me out of her life.

    I’m doing ok. sort of. I’m very relieved I was able to own my voice and have her hear it with the therapist as a witness. I did nothing wrong.

    Like

  10. I so appreciate your website, Veronica. It’s taken 7 years with my husband for me to realize the extent of his mother’s emotional neglect. When he was an adolescent, his mother put her needs above her childrens’ and divorced their father in order to be with her boss. Ever since, she’s had significant anxiety in needing to be seen as (and to believe she is) the perfect mom with the perfect family, as she cannot face the pain she caused her children.

    To cope with his mother’s extremely painful actions, my husband decided that those who hurt him significantly can still love him, and pain caused by others is excusable if they believe they have good intentions. He does not see his mother’s emotional neglect, and this is now significantly impacting our marriage after his mother repeatedly caused me harm and he stayed (and continues to stay) silent because her character assassination of me and tantrums directed towards me “were not intended maliciously”.

    We’re starting couples therapy and I hope to explore this with him and our counselor. I’ve broached this topic with him recently, and he was receptive, however I believe a professional third-party can be the only one to get through to him. I appreciate your resources and articles for further knowledge about this painful issue.

    Like

  11. my mother did that gaslight thing on me has done all my life ! I have no memories at all before the age of about 12 which is when my dad left home and moved abroad with a much younger woman. My mum has told me i told her that my dad had sexually abused me when i was little . I neither remember saying or even thinking anything that awful but as she is happy to point out my lack of memory could be my way of blocking a awful memory out ?? I have been in and out of rehab battling with addiction since i was 17 years old .. Just wanted to say im grateful for the insight and thanks x

    Like

  12. Growing up, I didn’t understand what I was doing in this world, and why everyone seemed to think and act differently than me. I would go to school and not be able to socialize with my peers and struggled with academics. (elementary school). I most likely had an undiagnosed learning disability, which my mother refused to acknowledge. Bullying followed and I would always be isolated. I started to develop anxiety and depression at the age of 8. I remember being scared of my mom screaming and her crazy driving. If my sister and I didn’t listen to her, she would beat us and stop her car in random areas and force us to listen to her. She would use clothing hangers, chairs, shoes to hit us and chase us everywhere in the house. It was a nightmare…My mother also neglected my health which wasn’t surprising as she didn’t know how to take care of herself as well. We would eat too much or too little and wouldn’t eat healthily. My desire to learn gymnastics and ballet were crushed by my mom as she believed that they would stop me from “growing taller”. I remember people telling my mother how pretty I looked and she would tell me how “she looked more pretty than me at my age”. I felt stunned and hurt. My father was working long hours and was rarely there to see her physically and emotionally abuse my sister and I. Fortunately, I met two English teachers in high school who changed my life. The first English teacher I had taught me how to think for myself. Prior to meeting her, anything I thought or did was what my mother thought or did. I was merely an extension of her irrational thoughts and actions. The second English teacher I had, helped me to reflect and draw upon my past experiences, which enabled me to come to so many realizations. I realized that I had to have faith in my ability to overcome these internal challenges I was facing. I began to develop and value my own voice and wasn’t afraid of speaking my mind. This, of course, frightened my mother as she didn’t want me to think for myself and “disobey” her. She would start to interrogate me on a daily basis and would ask cruel questions: “Who taught you to say this to me? Is it your English teacher? Your friend? You don’t sound like my daughter!” Hearing all of this destroyed me as I felt like I was only being who I am. And there was nothing wrong in what I was trying to do. Now that I am 18 years old, I feel thankful that I’ve been able to understand that my mother has NPD and perhaps more undiagnosed illnesses and disabilities. My only hope is to be able to take back control over my life, and learn to trust and love others again. It’ll be hard, and I’ll often feel depressed. However, I know that my friends and counselor can help me through every step of my journey to recover from my childhood and ongoing abuse. I hope that one day I’ll be able to inspire and help others to not only come to the same realization as me but to also understand how crucial it is to take care of one’s mental health.

    Like

  13. Thank you for this site. My life is a shambles, I’ve been an massive underachiever my whole life and I’m SO angry at “my parents.” I’ve been recovering from adult child issues for a while but it took me a long time to identify the severe emotional abuse I was subject to.

    I feel especially lost and hopeless and stuck tonight and it’s nice to see people speaking THE TRUTH about (their/our) lives.

    Like

  14. Thank you for this. I’m a sibling of 4 where we were all emotionally abused by our mum but I got the brunt being the oldest. I have little contact with my mum now to help me heal but my siblings have not accepted what happened And see me as a burden and a pain for reducing contact with our mum feeling sorry for her as she is ‘depressed.’ I have also been told by my mum nothing ever happened and so at testing times I question if it did. Plus she pretends to the world even now that she is caring and devoting when actually she ripped me apart for years leading to me having psychotherapy in secret and self harm too afraid to tell them as I would be ridiculed. Your website is so helpful and comforting. Thank you!

    Like

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