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A simple model is presented that predicts the kinetics of tensile stress evolution during the deposition of thin films that grow by the Volmer–Weber mechanism. The generation of a tensile stress was attributed to the impingement and coalescence of growing islands, while concurrent stress relaxation was assumed to occur via a microstructure-dependent diffusive mechanism. To model the process of island coalescence, finite element methods were employed and yielded average tensile stresses more consistent with experimental observations than those predicted using previously reported analytical models. A computer simulation was developed that models the process of film growth as the continuous nucleation of isolated islands, which grow at a constant rate to impinge and coalesce to form a continuous polycrystalline film. By incorporating the finite element results for stress generation and a microstructure-dependent stress relaxation model, the simulation qualitatively reproduced the complex temperature-dependent trends observed from in situ measurements of stress evolution during the deposition of Ag thin films. The agreement includes simulation of the decreasing stress relaxation rate observed during deposition at increasing temperatures. © 2000 American Institute of Physics.